NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Recent Court Cases Limit Government's Powers

June 16, 1999

Legal observers are noting a string of judicial decisions which might signal a trend toward less federal activism. Not since before the New Deal have courts seemed less willing to stretch the Constitution to any limit in order to accommodate big government.

Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt's confrontation with the Supreme Court in the 1930s, the Court greatly enlarged the federal government's power to regulate the economy.

More recently, however:

  • In 1995, in U.S. vs. Lopez, the Supreme Court struck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act which stretched the Constitution's Interstate Commerce clause to cover gun possession in the vicinity of schools.
  • This past March, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Violence Against Women Act which gave women the right to sue rapists in federal court, on the grounds that crime-fighting is not primarily a matter for the federal judiciary.
  • Just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Congress had given the Environmental Protection Agency too broad a mandate to write air pollution laws.

The latter two cases may very well wind up before the Supreme Court, in the view of judicial observers.

These decisions show that the courts "are very tentatively revisiting the constitutional revolution that took place between 1936 and 1938," says Roger Pilon, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies. Pilon says that "the Constitution was meant to restrain" the legislative and executive branches "by making it clear they had only limited, enumerated powers."

Source: Aaron Steelman, "Free-Market Judicial Activism?" Investor's Business Daily, June 16, 1999.


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