High Court Draws a Line

FOR the first time in 60 years the Supreme Court has ruled to limit congressional power -- by deciding last week that Congress could not use the interstate commerce clause to outlaw guns within 1,000 feet of a school. Hence, possession of a gun in or around schools is no longer a federal crime.

The 5-4 decision has been widely criticized in the press. Some feel the high court may be opening the door to reversals of a broad range of interstate commerce laws -- laws that provide, among other things, the backbone of most civil rights legislation, including public accommodation and public transport. Others say the court has needlessly sent a pro-gun message -- at the expense of school safety.

Actually, the majority opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist seems, at least on the surface, to harbor neither of these messages. It seems simply to say that Congress's powers are limited under the Constitution, and that the court has a role in reviewing legislation. The chief justice has long questioned whether Congress is micromanaging local issues by making a federal crime out of every problem. The point is a fair one. Last week's case, US v. Lopez, was an appropriate one to focus on.

Under the interstate commerce clause there must be a substantial relationship of fact between the law requiring uninhibited economic activity and the problem actually inhibiting that activity. In other words, Congress must prove that a problem exists before it passes a federal law.

In the case of guns in schools, it never truly has shown that guns restrict economic activity -- except in theory. Hence, the court is saying: Congress may not use the interstate commerce clause to grandstand, and conjure a law every time a crisis arises. Otherwise, almost anything could be shown to inhibit free trade.

Congress has not been hamstrung. It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not limit any of Congress's other enumerated powers -- such as spending -- to outlaw guns in schools. It just demands a different -- and credible -- law to do so. As long as the court is making this discrete point, it is not losing its pattern of judicial restraint regarding the powers of Congress.

We are quite concerned, with the dissenters, that the court not be overzealous in reviewing such cases. Justice Souter, in his dissent, argued that the case did not seem epochmaking. But he added, ''Not every epochal case has come in epochal trappings.''

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