In a significant decision that limits the powers of Congress, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 Wednesday to overturn a federal law barring anyone from carrying a gun near a school.
Congress exceeded its authority over interstate commerce when it enacted the law, declared the court’s five most conservative members: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In most communities, the ruling won’t have any immediate practical impact. More than 40 states have already outlawed the possession of firearms in or near school grounds. None of those state laws were affected by the high court ruling.
But in a broader sense, the decision was a milestone. It signaled a sharp conservative retreat from the court’s longtime willingness to endorse the expanding power of Congress to regulate a vast array of activities - based on its constitutional power to control interstate commerce.
The ruling placed a constitutional cloud over the authority of Congress to legislate in areas traditionally reserved to the states - especially education, local crime and such family law issues as marriage, divorce, child custody and adoption.
As such, it was a victory for state governments, gun owners and conservatives, who have long sought a halt to the growing commerce power of Congress.
“We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America. “We already have laws that punish thugs for committing crimes with a gun on school grounds. But the congressional act was not only unconstitutional, it could easily punish law-abiding adults who might carry a gun for self-defense.”
In contrast, the decision disturbed Clinton administration officials, guncontrol advocates, public school leaders, police organizations and others who favored the federal law that was declared unconstitutional.
“We are dismayed that it is no longer illegal to carry a handgun in or near schools in some states,” said Bob Chase, vice president of the National Education Association, which ardently supported the gun-control law invalidated Wednesday.
To some legal experts, the ruling could spell trouble for some environmental laws that regulate individual conduct and for a recently enacted federal statute that makes it a crime to obstruct abortion clinics.
For constitutional specialists, the decision was a doctrinal landmark, one that will be discussed in seminars, legal publications, law schools and government classrooms for years to come.
William Van Alstyne, a Duke University law professor and author of texts on constitutional law, said it was the first time in nearly 60 years that the Supreme Court had overturned an act of Congress that was based on its commerce power and had a direct effect on private activity.
The 108 pages written by six justices in the case, he said, added up to “the most important decision and discussion on federalism (the constitutional relationship between the federal government and the states) since 1937.”
The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 made it a federal crime to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a public, private or parochial school.
In defending it as a proper exercise of the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, the Clinton administration forcefully argued that gun-related violence in schools hinders learning to such a serious degree that it damages the American economy and its ability to compete in the world.
The dissenters - Justice Stephen Breyer, who was joined by John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg - made essentially the same argument.
But that theory, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority, could justify unfettered federal authority to legislate “even in areas such as criminal law enforcement, or education, where states historically have been sovereign.
“Thus, if we were to accept the government’s arguments, we are hard-pressed to posit any activity by an individual that Congress is without power to regulate.”
The case before the court, U.S. vs. Alfonso Lopez, began in 1992 when Lopez, then a 12th grader, was charged with violating Texas and federal laws for carrying a concealed handgun to a San Antonio high school.
State charges were dismissed and Lopez was sentenced to six months in prison for the federal violation. On appeal, though, a federal circuit court said Congress lacked power to enact the law.
Agreeing, Rehnquist observed: “The possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce.”
In a concurring opinion, Kennedy said such federal laws interfere with state efforts to cope with the same problems. The federal law, he said, “forecloses the states from experimenting and exercising their own judgment in an area to which states lay claim by right of history and expertise.”