Wickard v. Filburn
The United States Supreme Court decided the case of Wickard v. Filburn on November 9, 1942, capping a long line of cases establishing the unfettered power of the United States Congress. Although Wickard v. Filburn is little known by the public and even politicians, it is considered one of the most important Supreme Court cases implementing a dramatic transformation of the U.S. Constitution under "New Deal" of then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For identification purposes, it is assigned the citation codes of 317 U.S. 111 (1942).
Prior to the election of Roosevelt to the Presidency, the U.S. Supreme Court had sharply limited the power of Congress to regulate life throughout the United States. The Constitution empowers Congress to regulate "interstate commerce," but does not empower Congress to regulate commerce within an individual state, nor to regulate any other form of activity other than "interstate commerce."
Many of the regulatory statutes Congress enacted involved activity within a single State, and not transactions crossing state lines. As a result, the Supreme Court struck down a large number of statutes as unconstitutional, including many that were popular with the voters.
This period of strict limitations on the powers of Congress is referred to as the "Lochner Era", named after the case of Lochner v. New York, that was seen as symbolic of the trend. The Lochner Era is regarded by advocates of big government as an aberration during which the Supreme Court sharply departed from the Constitution and followed flawed reasoning. The Lochner era is considered to have started in 1897 with Allgeyer v. Louisiana and ended in 1937 with West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.
The "Lochner Court"—that is the Supreme Court sitting during this period—has been reviled and disparaged by advocates of big government or a socialist approach to national affairs. Indeed, the four conservative Supreme Court Justices seen as responsible for the "Lochner Era" rulings were labeled as "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by advocates of big government. The Lochner Court not only struck down regulations by Congress but also of State governments as well.
President Franklin Roosevelt was elected on promises to revitalize the nation's economy from the Great Depression. The Congress elected with him and the mood of the country shared Roosevelt's determination to take whatever steps might be needed in this urgent task. Roosevelt proposed literally hundreds of programs and regulations called the New Deal emphasizing a big-government and even socialist approach to the economy. The Congress was eager to enact this ambitious agenda and the voters were impatient for immediate solutions to the Great Depression.
Nearly all of the New Deal involved regulation of commerce that was not only interstate commerce but also commerce within a state or even was not commerce at all. None of these regulations would survive as constitutional or could be implemented under the Supreme Court's then-prevailing constitutional precedents.
Knowing that he could not implement his agenda without a change in the Supreme Court, on March, 1937, President Roosevelt announced what critics called his "Court Packing Scheme". Roosevelt publicly threatened to expand the number of Justices on the Supreme Court from 9 to 15, and appoint 6 new Justices friendly to Roosevelt's agenda, since the Constitution does not specify the number of Justices that must comprise the Court. Thus, Roosevelt proposed to win either way. If the current Justices would not change their votes on the U.S. Constitution in Supreme Court cases, they would be out-numbered by 6 new Justices who would change the outcome.
Faced with this coercion, the Supreme Court abruptly reversed its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and began to rule in a string of cases that the "Commerce Clause" of the Constitution empowered Congress to regulate all aspects of life in the United States, even commerce within a state, and even activity that is strictly speaking not commerce at all.
Opinion of the court
The high water mark of this trend was the case of Wickard v. Filburn. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 imposed a nationwide set of quotas limiting the amount of wheat and other crops that farmers could grow. A farmer named Filburn operated a small farm in Montgomery County, Ohio, maintaining a herd of dairy cattle, selling milk, raising poultry, and selling poultry and eggs.
In July 1940, Roscoe Filburn was told of his allotment permitting him to grow a limited amount of wheat during the 1941 season. Mr. Wickard grew 239 bushels, which was more than this allotted amount of wheat permitted, and he was charged with growing too much wheat by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under the authority of Secretary Claude R. Wickard.
None of the wheat was sold in interstate commerce. In fact, all the wheat was fed to Wickard's cattle on his own property. Thus, the wheat grown by Filburn never actually left his farm and was not sold in intrastate, much less interstate commerce.
The fact that Farmer Filburn never sold any of the wheat, but merely fed it to his cattle, meant that this was not really commerce, either. Filburn argued that Congress was attempting to regulate merely the "consumption" of wheat—not commerce (marketing) of wheat. Thus, Filburn argued, the regulation should fail both because (a) the activity was not interstate, and (b) it was not commerce.
Despite this, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the regulation as constitutionally authorized under the power to regulate interstate commerce. The Court's reasoning was that the growing of wheat that never entered commerce of any kind, and did not enter interstate commerce, nevertheless potentially could have an effect upon interstate commerce. That is, had Farmer Filburn not grown his own wheat to fed his cattle, he would have bought wheat, which might have been intrastate commerce purely within Ohio, but could possibly have traveled in inter-state commerce.
The court in effect ruled that growing crops on one's own property, to feed one's own livestock, while neither "interstate," nor "commerce," is "Interstate Commerce." As to whether this ruling "bears any fidelity to the original constitutional design," University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard Epstein wrote that "Wickard does not pass the laugh test.
In the opinion, the court held:
It can hardly be denied that a factor of such volume and variability as home-consumed wheat would have a substantial influence on price and market conditions. This may arise because being in marketable condition such wheat overhangs the market, and, if induced by rising prices, tends to flow into the market and check price increases. But if we assume that it is never marketed, it supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market. Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce. The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon.
This "economic effects" theory of the regulation of interstate commerce resulted in every area of American life being subject to regulation under the clause of the U.S. Constitution empowering Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
This ruling that purely local activity which is not commerce can be regulated by Congress under the "interstate commerce" clause meant that Congress' power to regulate every aspect of American life was essentially without limit.
Nearly all of the regulation of modern American life is enacted under this principle and this expanded understanding of the "interstate commerce clause." That is, had the Supreme Court maintained its prior rulings under the "Lochner Era," most regulation in modern America would be struck down as unconstitutional.
It would not be until nearly the end of the 20th Century, that a new Supreme Court began to reassert some limitations upon Congress with regard to regulating interstate commerce.
The Supreme Court also indulged in significant discussion in the opinion of why the regulation was desirable from a policy and economic perspective.