Johnny Cochran is dead.
Death of a Giant

Crime and Federalism Wins in the Circuits

In United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995) the Court, for the first time since 1937, struck down a law because it exceeded the scope of Congress' commerce power. Understandably, the federal circuits reacted with caution: no court struck down a criminal statute immediately post-Lopez.  Granted, the federalism gurus of the fightin' Fifth tried.

Three years after Lopez, the Fifth Circuit - which, we'll remember, gave us Lopez - examined constitutional challenges to the Hobbs Act. In United States v. Hickman, 151 F.3d 446, rehearing en banc 179 F.3d 230 (CA5 1999), cert. denied 530 U.S. 1210 (2000) an equally divided en banc panel of the Fifth Circuit affirmed convictions under the Hobbs Act against a Commerce Clause-based attack.  Perhaps Lopez was an abberation.

Then in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Court held that the civil remedy provision of the Violence Against Women Act violated the Commerce Clause. And the next week, in Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000), the Court construed the federal arson statute narrowly because, applying it to the burning of a private resident, would raise considerable constitutional problems in light of Lopez.  The Court was taking federalism seriously. Did the circuits hear its call?  Not for another three years.

Again, the Fifth Circuit heard an attack brought against the Hobbs Act.  In United States v. McFarland, 264 F.3d 557 (5th Cir. 2001), rehearing en banc 311 F.3d 376 (5th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 538 U.S. 962 (2003), the Fifth Circuit again split evenly in rejecting a challenge that the Hobbs Act exceeded Congress' commerce power.

No federal circuit held that a federal criminal law was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause until nearly eight years after Lopez, and three years after Morrison.  The circuits, it seemed, did not take Lopez or Morrison seriously - at least not seriously enough to implement it.

In United States v. McCoy, 323 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2003), a 2-1 panel reversed a conviction under the federal child pornography law because the pornographic images were not transported interstate. In McCoy, a mother was convicted under federal child pornography laws for taking sexually-explicit pictures of herself and her daughter.  The government failed to prove that McCoy took the photographs for commercial gain, or that the photographs traveled interstate.  Because of that, her prosecution was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.

On the heels of McCoy came United States v. Stewart, 348 F.3d 1132 (9th Cir. 2003) (Kozinski, J.). The issue in Stewart was whether Congress' commerce power allowed it to criminalize the possession of a home-made machine-gun Stewart had converted his semi-automatic rifle to fire automatically with parts that had moved through interstate commerce. Holding that Congress lacked the power, Judge Kozinski wrote:

Indeed, some of the machinegun parts did move in interstate commerce. At some level, of course, everything we own is composed of something that once traveled in commerce. This cannot mean that everything is subject to federal regulation under the Commerce Clause, else that constitutional limitation would be entirely meaningless. As Lopez reminds us, Congress’s power has limits, and we must be mindful of those limits so as not to obliterate the distinction between what is national and what is local and create a completely centralized government.

Id. at 1135 (quotation marks omitted).

In Raich v. Ashcroft, 352 F.3d 1222 (9th Cir. 2003), cert. granted, 124 S.Ct. 2909, 72 (U.S. Jun 28, 2004), a 2-1 panel held that the Controlled Substance Act, to the extent that it criminalized the use of marijuana not purchased nor obtained interstate, was an unconstitutional exercise of power under the Commerce Clause. Wrote Judge Pregerson:

The cultivation, possession, and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and not for exchange or distribution is not properly characterized as commercial or economic activity. Lacking sale, exchange or distribution, the activity does not possess the essential elements of commerce.

Id. at 1229-30.  The Ninth Circuit has been silent on crime and federalism issues post-Raich.  But in 2004, the Eleventh Circuit spoke.

In United States v. Maxwell, 2004 WL 2191801 (11th Cir., Oct. 1, 2004), a unanimous three-judge panel held that Congress may not criminalize the intrastate possession of child pornography, even if the child pornography is kept on items that moved through interstate commerce. In Maxwell, the defendant kept his child pornography on diskettes that moved through interstate commerce. However, the prosecution could not establish that the pictures on the disks were taken outside of Maxwell's home state - Florida. Thus, the law was unconstitutional as applied to him. Significantly, the panel held that it would not apply the aggregate affects test of Wickard v. Filburn to non-commercial activity.

A couple of weeks ago, in United States v. Smith, No. 03-13639 (11th Cir. Mar. 18, 2005), a different and unanimous three-judge panel affirmed Maxwell's holding, and reviewing for plain error, held that allowing Maxwell-type prosecution would be reversed.

Even though there are over 4,000 federal criminal laws, the circuits have only given us a five crime and federalism victories in ten years. It seems that most circuits do not take Lopez and Morrison seriously.