Skip to comments.The Commerce Clause, The Federal Judiciary, and Tyranny (or How Scalia Helped Screw America)
Posted on 10/16/2009 8:29:12 AM PDT by Huck
In this essay I will attempt to show that the powers granted to the Federal Judiciary were excessive, that the creation of an all-powerful, unaccountable Supreme Court was a grave error that made the expansion of Federal power inevitable, and virtually limitless. I will then provide a brief investigation into the original meaning of the Commerce Clause. Last, I will argue that the harm created through Commerce Clause jurisprudence appears irreversible, having been upheld and applied by Justice Scalia and the liberal wing of the Court as recently as 2005. If Justice Scalia not only unwilling to overturn past Commerce Clause jurisprudence, but rather is willing to AFFIRM it, then there simply is no hope for repair.
1. Federal Judicial Power
Among the many errors in the Constitution, none has been as harmful as Article 3, Sec 2:
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;--to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public ministers and Consuls;--to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;--to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;--to Controversies between two or more States;--between a State and Citizens of another State;--between Citizens of different States;--between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
Anti-federalists, such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, opposed the ratification of the Constitution. In a series of essays known as the Anti-Federalist Papers, they warned that the myriad errors in the Constitution would lead to tyranny. Under the name Brutus, several of these papers addressed the dire consequences of the powers granted by Article 3, Sec.2:
The supreme court under this constitution would be exalted above all other power in the government, and subject to no control I question whether the world ever saw, in any period of it, a court of justice invested with such immense powers, and yet placed in a situation so little responsible. Certain it is, that in England, and in the several states, where we have been taught to believe the courts of law are put upon the most prudent establishment, they are on a very different footing.
The power of this court is in many cases superior to that of the legislature. I have showed, in a former paper, that this court will be authorised to decide upon the meaning of the constitution; and that, not only according to the natural and obvious meaning of the words, but also according to the spirit and intention of it.
[I]t is easy to see, that in their adjudication they may establish certain principles, which being received by the legislature will enlarge the sphere of their power beyond all bounds.
2. The Commerce Clause
There has probably been no more insidious and far-reaching example of the Supreme courts ability to enlarge the sphere of Federal power than their rulings on the meaning of The Commerce Clause. It turned out to be the most gaping loophole in the entire Constitution, what law school professors refer to as The Everything Clause. It is so broad a power, that it now grants to the Federal Government the power to regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce. But what did it mean originally? Let us examine this question, beginning with the clause itself, from Article 1, Section 8:
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
At the time the Constitution was drafted, the power to regulate interstate commerce was understood to mean the right to impose tariffs on imports and exports. Thats it. Nothing more. The Framers gave this power to the Federal Legislature in order to promote harmony among the states by preventing interstate trade wars. James Madison summed it up in Federalist #42:
A very material object of this power was the relief of the States which import and export through other States, from the improper contributions levied on them by the latter. Were these at liberty to regulate the trade between State and State, it must be foreseen that ways would be found out to load the articles of import and export, during the passage through their jurisdiction, with duties which would fall on the makers of the latter and the consumers of the former. We may be assured by past experience, that such a practice would be introduced by future contrivances; and both by that and a common knowledge of human affairs, that it would nourish unceasing animosities, and not improbably terminate in serious interruptions of the public tranquillity
The necessity of a superintending authority over the reciprocal trade of confederated States, has been illustrated by other examples as well as our own. In Switzerland, where the Union is so very slight, each canton is obliged to allow to merchandises a passage through its jurisdiction into other cantons, without an augmentation of the tolls. In Germany it is a law of the empire, that the princes and states shall not lay tolls or customs on bridges, rivers, or passages, without the consent of the emperor and the diet; though it appears from a quotation in an antecedent paper, that the practice in this, as in many other instances in that confederacy, has not followed the law, and has produced there the mischiefs which have been foreseen here. Among the restraints imposed by the Union of the Netherlands on its members, one is, that they shall not establish imposts disadvantageous to their neighbors, without the general permission.
The Commerce Clause, then, had one distinct purposeto prevent states from imposing tariffs on imports and exports from other states, in order to provide for the harmony and proper intercourse among the States, as Madison characterized it. It was basically a free trade agreement among the states.
The Commerce Clause today, after nearly two centuries of Federal Judicial interpretation, goes far beyond its original meaning and intent. It now includes the power to prevent interstate tariffs and trade wars, it includes the power to regulate any activity, commercial or not, interstate or intrastate. It doesnt even have to have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The court merely has to decide that there is a rational basis for thinking that an activity has a substantial effect on interstate commerce, for that activity to fall under the power granted by the Commerce Clause. It is, indeed, the Everything Clause.
How did we get so far from its original, limited meaning? By the powers granted to the Federal Judiciary in Article 3, Section 2. As predicted in Anti-Federalist Paper 82:
They will be able to extend the limits of the general government gradually, and by insensible degrees, and to accommodate themselves to the temper of the people. Their decisions on the meaning of the constitution will commonly take place in cases which arise between individuals, with which the public will not be generally acquainted. One adjudication will form a precedent to the next, and this to a following one.
Law students could rattle off the landmark cases: Gibbons v Ogden, Swift v United States, Wickard v Fillburn. Case by case, precedent by precedent, the meaning was stretched like silly putty. Meatpackers fell under Commerce Clause power, because although their activity was geographically "local," they had an important effect on the "current of commerce". Stockyards were subject to federal regulation, because they were a throat through which the current [of commerce] flows.
The climax of this expansion of Federal power was Wickard v Fillburn, a New Deal era case which proclaimed:
But even if appellee's activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.
In Wickard, the government was asserting its power to restrict the production of wheat. They were trying to raise wheat prices by reducing the supply by fiat. They asserted that even if someone was growing wheat to feed their own animalsit was not moving across state lines, it was not being soldit still fell under the Commerce Clause regulatory power because it had a substantial effect on wheat supply generally.
And so there you have it. Not only had we drifted from the original meaning of the clausethat trade should flow freely between states. Wickard established that the power to regulate interstate commerce included activity that was not interstate, and that was not commerce. It only had to have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, whatever that means. More recently, even that was found to be too limited a power. Presently, the Court doesnt even have to find a substantial effect, but merely a rational basis for thinking there is a substantial effect.
3. Justice Scalia and Gonzalez v Raich
Which brings us to Justice Scalia, and Gonzalez v Raich. This case pitted the Justice Department of George W Bush against Angel Raich, and indirectly, the State of California. Raich was a resident of California, and under California state law, was legally permitted to cultivate marijuana for personal medical use. DEA agents intervened, destroyed the 6 marijuana plants, as part of an overall attempt to break up Calfornias marijuana co-ops and assert Federal marijuana laws. Raich sued.
The Justice Department argued that it had the power to regulate home-grown marijuana plants, even if they were not involved in any interstate commerce, indeed, even if they were not involved in any commerce. They based their argument on that old New Deal case, Wickard v Fillburn.
Here was a chance, one might have hoped, for the conservative justices to overturn Wickard! How can anyone serious about originalism support this absurd construction of federal power? Right? Wrong.
Not only did the court fail to overturn Wickard. It based its decision on Wickard, thus affirming it, and making it that much more unlikely that it will EVER be overturned. The decision was 6-3. The three dissenters Rehnquist, Thomas, and OConnor. The majority opinion was written by Justice Stevens, and joined by Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, and a concurring opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Scalias explained his reason for writing a separate opinion:
I agree with the Courts holding that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) may validly be applied to respondents cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana for personal, medicinal use. I write separately because my understanding of the doctrinal foundation on which that holding rests is, if not inconsistent with that of the Court, at least more nuanced.
And what was this nuanced difference?
Since Perez v. United States, 402 U.S. 146 (1971), our cases have mechanically recited that the Commerce Clause permits congressional regulation of three categories: (1) the channels of interstate commerce; (2) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, and persons or things in interstate commerce; and (3) activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.
The first two categories are self-evident, since they are the ingredients of interstate commerce itself. See Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 189190 (1824). The third category, however, is different in kind, and its recitation without explanation is misleading and incomplete.
It is misleading because, unlike the channels, instrumentalities, and agents of interstate commerce, activities that substantially affect interstate commerce are not themselves part of interstate commerce, and thus the power to regulate them cannot come from the Commerce Clause alone. Rather, as this Court has acknowledged since at least United States v. Coombs, 12 Pet. 72 (1838), Congresss regulatory authority over intrastate activities that are not themselves part of interstate commerce (including activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce) derives from the Necessary and Proper Clause.
Basically, he just thought they should toss in the necessary and proper clause. Other than that, he was in agreement. A nuanced difference, indeed.
Raich affirmed not just Wickard, but the long trail of Commerce Clause jurisprudence, which has extend[ed] the limits of the general government gradually, and by insensible degrees. Each case that formed a precedent to the next, and this to a following.
So if you cant trust Justice Scalia, the most famous originalist of the last several decades, who can you trust? It appears you can trust Justice Thomas, who stated in his dissent:
One searches the Courts opinion in vain for any hint of what aspect of American life is reserved to the States.
From this brief examination of the powers of the Federal Judiciary, the history of the Commerce Clause, and the willingness of even Justice Scalia (Et tu, Nino?) to adopt the most liberal constructions to reach a desired end, it appears to me that the Constitution will never return to any semblance of limited power. It is terminally ill, and will not recover. The fatal flaw was the awesome power granted to the Federal Judiciary. I will attempt in the future to explore what alternative to this Federal power could be devised in a future Constitution to avoid this fatal error.
I believe you are incorrect. The 9th circuit issued an injunction against the feds, but they did not try the case. It went directly to the SCOTUS.
No Ambassador, public Minister or Consul, or State was a party in Wickard v Filburn.
Stop attacking the Constitution!
You go on and on with your analysis, bringing out centuries-old arguments which have already been hashed out by the Founding Fathers, striving to discredit and undermine their work.
The war has been waged, the arguments raised and debated, and far better men than you or I have settled the matter.
The Constitution was inspired by God. It is OVERWHELMINGLY the best document of its kind in the history of government. The Founding Fathers themselves realized and acknowledged that it is not perfect, and that it is IMPOSSIBLE to write law comprehensive enough and strong enough to account for and prevent every cunning and evil concept which could arise. That fact notwithstanding, it is a MAGNIFICENT work and has profoundly contributed to the blessing, prosperity and peace of the entire world.
Neither the Commerce Clause, nor any other part of the Constitution are to blame in any degree for the evils of men and their propensity for tyranny. To suggest such is no different than blaming a weapon for the violence of him who wields it.
I call upon ALL FReepers to rise up and DEFEND the Constitution! REVERE it! HONOR it!
And for the love of all that is right, please cease this corrosive criticism of that beloved document!
If one reads the Supreme Court’s entire line of Commerce Clause cases, it becomes clear that long before Raich, the federal power included protection of freedom of commerce between the states and the prohibition of items and practices generally when they impact interstate commerce.
No party::no precedence::no basis.
Congress can limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. In practice, it has not done so because of the need to harmonize decisions by the federal courts and state courts as to federal law issues.
The complaint stated that John Ashcroft and Asa Hutchinson are "unconstitutionally exceeding their authority by embarking on a campaign of seizing or forfeiting privately-grown intrastate medical cannabis from California patients and caregivers, arresting or prosecuting such patients, mounting paramilitary raids against patients and caregivers, harassing patients and caregivers, and taking other civil or administrative actions against them."
The injunction was denied. The plaintiffs then filed an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Court reversed the judgment, ruling that the government's actions were unconstitutional.
The U.S. government appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, changing the name of the case to Ashcroft et al. v. Raich et al.
Appealed and appealed again.
but they did not try the case.
Try the case? Raich wasn't a defendant.
As Raich makes clear though, federal law can be enforced so as to ban marijuana within a state without regard to state law or whether the marijuana is nominally ‘intended’ for interstate commerce. This is because growing marijuana creates a commodity that can be readily put into interstate commerce.
Prior to Wickard all regulations and prohibitions were imposed on interstate transport via registered common carriers. These were considered subject to federal authority because they were authorized and protected as being part of the "channels of interstate commerce".
I recall that there has been some Congressional tinkering with Supreme Court jurisdiction, but not to major effect. The far more consequential considerations are federal court jurisdiction and the cases and controversies permitted to be heard there.
What you’re referring to was a preliminary injunction.
That is simply not so. Again, there is no substitute for the dull and hard effort of a close reading of the entire line of Supreme Court Commerce Clause cases. The general trend is of the Court upholding increasingly expansive federal laws based on the Commerce Clause. Wickard is not a departure but a logical culmination.
The Founder's writings on the subject make it clear that this is not within the intent of the commerce clause.
Whether it could potentially be interstate commerce or not is irrelevant. There's virtuallly nothing that wouldn't meet that standard, and if you read the associated writings on the subject, it is clear that this is not the power the clause conveyed.
It is not subject to federal regulation until it actually enters the channels of interstate commerce, and then it was only intended that it be regulated to prevent trade disputes between the states.
It's a completely bogus interpretation, but one that Scalia chose to affirm.
Where is your proposition for its replacement?
If you believe there is a better way, post it.
It's a far easier task to sit comfortably at home in the peace granted to you by the Constitution and criticize the precious work of men who willingly lost credibility, family, fortune and their very LIVES for what they created, when they are no longer around to defend it and answer your charges, than it is to build your own work and open it up to scrutiny.
You aren't WORTHY to criticize the Constitution!