Thursday, June 30, 2011

Almighty Commerce Clause

One of the focuses of our class discussions today dealt with the commerce clause which grants Congress the right to "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." More specifically, our discussion focused on to what extent can Congress use the commerce clause to justify regulating institutions both private and public.

In the case of Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, the motel refused to provide service for black customers. The appellate court decided that under the Civil Rights Act, the motel is prohibited from discrimination or segregation in all catering establishments, with the only exception being "private clubs" with less than five rooms. Because the motel has over 200 rooms, it is subject to this act. However, the motel appealed to the Supreme Court with the argument that the 14th amendment does not prohibit discrimination in privately owned public accommodations unless private discrimination is "sanctioned by the state" or "done under state authority".

The question the Supreme Court had to answer was that because the majority of the motel's customers are from out-of-state, does that qualify as interstate commerce. If so, then the appellants argument would be void because interstate commerce isn't "done under state authority". The Supreme Court came to their decision based on the following reasons:
  1. In a society which is becoming increasingly mobile, prohibiting service to blacks causes barriers for blacks to travel to other states in search of jobs, which may contribute to interstate commerce.
  2. Because the motel's customers are primarily from other states, about 75%, discrimination isn't protected under the 14th amendment. Interstate commerce is regulated by Congress who has the right to enforce the Civil Rights Act.
While this decision my appear straight enough, it has a lasting impact on how the court interprets the commerce clause. The same logic was applied to the case Katzenbach v. McClung where Ollie's Barbeque refused to serve blacks. The Supreme Court ruled that because the establishment imported a significant amount of meat from other states, Congress has the right to enforce the Civil Rights Act because the importing of meat was deemed to be interstate commerce. More recently, in 2005, the court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich that Congress can regulate a homegrown product even if it doesn't enter interstate commerce. By applying the commerce clause, the court reasoned that if a civilian smokes marijuana that he/she grew, Congress can regulate the product because if the civilian grew it, he/she isn't purchasing from possibly, out-of-state vendors.

Should the commerce clause be extended to this extent? I don't believe so. What if someone brought to suit that Congress should regulate tomatoes produced in one's garden? The justices will apply the precedent and can vote to regulate the purchase of tomatoes by using the same logic applied in Gonzales v. Raich. In my opinion, the Supreme Court has given the legislative branch too much power to regulate commerce. The power has been extended to situations where it is possible that interstate commerce may be related, instead of situations like Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States and Katzenbach v. McClung where it was known that the institutions were involved in interstate commerce.

1 comment:

  1. Your question ‘what if someone brought to suit that Congress should regulate tomatoes produced in one's garden” is a good one. To me, this question brigs back your earier argument on pros and cons of original vs. developmental approach in interpreting the Constitution. The fear was that the law of Control Substance Act would become unenforceable in practice if a single exception on medical use of marijuana were made. I wonder whether this came to justices’ mind when deciding the cases Gonzales v. Raich?. The argument that locally grown marijuana for medical purposes affects the interstate market of marijuana is pretty obvious.