Federalism and the Constitution

Gonzales v. Raich (2005)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Gonzales v. Raich. Dealing with the Commerce Clause and the government’s regulatory powers, this lesson asks students to trace and evaluate the evolution of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Congress’s commerce power in light of the principle of federalism.

Founding Principles

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Case Background

The Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate “Commerce … among the several states.” During the early years of the nation, this was understood to mean that the federal government had the authority to regulate interstate movement and trade in goods and services. The main purpose in the eyes of the Framers was to enable Congress to override protectionist trade barriers set by state governments. In the famous 1824 case of Gibbons v. Ogden, Chief Justice John Marshall affirmed Congress’ right to regulate “commerce which concerns more states than one” but noted that Congress did not have the right to regulate the internal commerce of a state.

The meaning of the Commerce Clause has been debated throughout our history. Critics of several pieces of New Deal legislation claimed that the laws relied on an overly-broad interpretation of the Clause. In the first case, Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. (1935), the Court held that the federal government may only regulate the “direct” effects of interstate commerce, thus striking down Section 3 of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Seven years later, another Court (with members more sympathetic to the Roosevelt administration) held that Congress could regulate any type of economic activity, which might have a substantial impact on interstate commerce. This decision upheld the Agricultural Adjustment Act. For more than the next fifty years, the Supreme Court did not act to restrict Congress’ power to regulate a wide variety of activities.

In the 1990’s, the Supreme Court took a more limited view of the application of the Commerce Clause with cases like U.S. v. Lopez and U.S. v. Morrison. Court observers wondered if that trend would continue when a 2005 case prompted a re-evaluation of federal regulatory powers. California resident Diane Monson was surprised when the federal Drug Enforcement Agency seized six marijuana plants growing in her backyard. She and her co-defendant, Angel Raich, suffered from a variety of serious medical conditions and used marijuana to relieve symptoms. The use of the drug was legal under California law. However, under a federal law-the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)–marijuana was considered illegal contraband. Raich and Monson challenged the CSA, contending that their homegrown marijuana had no impact on interstate commerce and therefore its seizure was a violation of the Commerce Clause. Their case, Gonzales v. Raich (2005), placed the issue of federal regulatory powers squarely before the Court.

Key Question

Trace and evaluate the evolution of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Congress’s commerce power in light of the principle of federalism.


Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze the Documents provided. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of the Documents as well as your own knowledge of history.

Learning Objectives

  • Students analyze constitutional principles at issue in Gonzales v. Raich.
  • Students evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gonzales v. Raich.


  1. Review the Case Background; discuss to be sure students understand the background and facts. As a class, read and answer scaffolding questions for Documents A and B, passages from Article I and Article VI of the Constitution.
  2. Write/project the graphic organizer (regarding the Commerce Clause) shown below on the board. Divide the class into 5 small groups and assign each of the following documents to a small group: C, D, E, F, G.
    Commerce Clause Graphic Organizer
    Each group will decide where their assigned case excerpt belongs on the continuum, coming to the front to write the letter of their assigned document in the appropriate place, and sharing their rationale with the class
  3. Still working in small groups, have students read and analyze the remaining documents.
  4. Use the Key Question for class discussion or writing assignment, focusing on the constitutional principles involved in the case.
  5. Key Question: Trace and evaluate the evolution of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Congress’s commerce power in light of the principle of federalism.
  6. Students create a timeline, graph, or other illustration to show the evolving understanding of the Commerce Clause. The illustration should be labeled as representing the ideas of each document.

See RESOURCES for additional Graphic Organizers.


  1. United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 (1787)
  2. United States Constitution, Article VI, Section 2 (1787)
  3. Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Majority Opinion
  4. Schechter v U.S. (1935), Unanimous Opinion
  5. Wickard v. Filburn (1942), Unanimous Opinion
  6. U.S. v. Lopez (1995), Majority Opinion
  7. U.S. v. Lopez (1995), Dissenting Opinion
  8. U.S. v. Morrison (2000), Majority Opinion
  9. Gonzales v. Raich (2005), Majority Opinion
  10. Gonzales v. Raich (2005), Dissenting Opinion
  11. Gonzales v. Raich” Cartoon (2005)
  12. Maps of States With Legalized Medical Marijuana

Background Information

Document A: United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 (1787)
The Philadelphia Convention was called, in large part, to deal with the commercial challenges posed by thirteen sovereign states charging each other tariffs, refusing to recognize each others’ currencies, and questioning each others’ systems of weights and measures. The Founders were convinced that federal regulation of interstate commerce was necessary to ensure that the new nation had a firm financial foundation.

Document B: United States Constitution, Article VI, Section 2 (1787)
The Framers recognized that one of the most serious flaws of the government under the Articles of Confederation was that all aspects of sovereignty remained in the states. The Supremacy Clause clarifies that any law that contradicts the U.S. Constitution is invalid, thus establishing sovereignty in the will of the people as expressed in the U.S. Constitution.

Document C: Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Unanimous Opinion
Thomas Gibbons ran a steamship line between New Jersey and New York, using a license that had been issued by Congress in 1793. The State of New York granted Aaron Ogden a monopoly to run steamships between New York and New Jersey. Gibbons sued, arguing that New York state could only regulate intrastate commerce, and that his steamship activities fell under congressional power through the Commerce clause. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote for the Court, asserting that Congress had the constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce.

Document D: Schechter v U.S. (1935), Unanimous Opinion
The National Industrial Recovery Act, which created the National Recovery Administration, was the most extensive federal economic regulatory law in U.S. history to that point. The National Recovery Administration created many detailed codes for individual industries. The Schechter brothers’ two butcher shops fell under the Code of Fair Competition for the Live Poultry Industry of the Metropolitan Area in and About the City of New York. The Schechter Poultry Company was charged by the U.S. government, acting under the regulations of the Live Poultry Code, with selling “unfit chickens.” The four Schechter brothers appealed the conviction contending, in part, that their business took place only within New York City and therefore was not subject to congressional regulation of interstate commerce. In a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the Supreme Court agreed that Congress had exceeded its constitutional powers in passing the Live Poultry Code.

Document E: Wickard v. Filburn (1942), Unanimous Opinion
Roscoe Filburn was a farmer in Trotwood, Ohio who grew wheat for sale, for seed, and for his household. In 1942, he was fined by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration for exceeding a planting quota determined by the Agricultural Adjustment Act. He appealed his fine on the basis that since the excess wheat was grown for home use, it was unrelated to commerce and therefore not subject to congressional regulation. In a unanimous decision written by Justice Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court determined that Filburn’s failure to purchase wheat on the open market (since he raised it himself) would have an impact on the price of wheat in other states. His decision not to engage in commerce by planting for personal use more than the allowable amount of wheat had an impact on interstate commerce, and could therefore be regulated.

Document F: U.S. v. Lopez (1995), Majority Opinion (5-4)
Alfonso Lopez was charged with carrying a concealed handgun in a Texas high school, a violation of state law, and of the federal Gun Free Zones Act of 1990. He was initially charged with violation of the state law, but the next day federal agents charged him with violating the federal law, and the state charges were dropped at that time. He was tried and convicted, but appealed his conviction on the basis that Congress did not have power under the Commerce Clause to regulate handguns. In a 5-4 decision with Chief Justice Rehnquist writing for the majority, the Court agreed with Lopez, saying that carrying handguns is not an economic activity and therefore the law was not justified as an exercise of congressional power under the Commerce Clause.

Document G: U.S. v. Lopez (1995), Dissenting Opinion
Justice Breyer wrote the dissent explaining the minority’s view that Congress can regulate carrying a gun in a school zone because guns in school zones do have an indirect effect on interstate commerce.

Document H: U.S. v. Morrison (2000)
Christy Brzonkala, a freshman at Virginia Tech, alleged that Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, two other students, assaulted and raped her. She filed a complaint against both men under Virginia Tech’s Sexual Assault Policy. After a hearing, Morrison was found guilty and sentenced to suspension for two semesters, but Crawford was not punished. Morrison appealed his punishment through the university’s administrative system, and it was set aside as excessive. Brzonkala dropped out of the university. Dissatisfied that neither man was charged with a crime by the state of Virginia, Brzonkala sued in federal court under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. With Chief Justice William Rehnquist writing for the Majority, the Supreme Court ruled against Brzonkala, concluding that the Violence Against Women Act exceeded congressional power under the Commerce Clause because the Act was not related to commerce.

Document I: Gonzales v. Raich (2005), Majority Opinion (6-3)
The Majority used an expansive definition of “economic activity,” including anything that involves the production, consumption, or distribution of a commodity. Their reasoning also made it easy to regulate even “noneconomic” activity as part of a broader regulatory scheme. They applied the “rational basis” test, which means that the Court will uphold a law under the Commerce Clause so long as Congress has a mere “rational basis” for believing that the economic activity being regulated has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

Document J: Gonzales v. Raich (2005), Dissenting Opinions
In addition to Justice Thomas’ dissent which is excerpted in Document J, students may wish to discuss Justice O’Connor’s dissent, a portion of which is provided here:

…The Court’s definition of economic activity is breathtaking. It defines as economic any activity involving the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities. And it appears to reason that when an interstate market for a commodity exists, regulating the intrastate manufacture or possession of that commodity is constitutional either because that intrastate activity is itself economic, or because regulating it is a rational part of regulating its market. Putting to one side the problem endemic to the Court’s opinion — the shift in focus from the activity at issue in this case to the entirety of what the CSA regulates, the Court’s definition of economic activity for purposes of Commerce Clause jurisprudence threatens to sweep all of productive human activity into federal regulatory reach….

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