Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized the power of the federal government to regulate economic activity. A farmer, Roscoe Filburn, was growing wheat for on-farm consumption. The U.S. government established limits on wheat production based on acreage owned by a farmer, in order to drive up wheat prices during the Great Depression, and Filburn was growing more than the limits permitted. Filburn was ordered to destroy his crops and pay a fine, even though he was producing the excess wheat for his own use and had no intention of selling it.
The Supreme Court, interpreting the United States Constitution’s Commerce Clause under Article 1 Section 8 (which permits the United States Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”) decided that, because Filburn’s wheat growing activities reduced the amount of wheat he would buy for chicken feed on the open market, and because wheat was traded nationally, Filburn’s production of more wheat than he was allotted was affecting interstate commerce, and so could be regulated by the federal government.
The Commerce Clause
The provision of the U.S. Constitution that gives Congress exclusive power over trade activities among the states and with foreign countries and Indian tribes.
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3, of the Constitution empowers Congress “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” The term commerce as used in the Constitution means business or commercial exchanges in any and all of its forms between citizens of different states, including purely social communications between citizens of different states by telegraph, telephone, or radio, and the mere passage of persons from one state to another for either business or pleasure.
Intrastate, or domestic, commerce is trade that occurs solely within the geographic borders of one state. As it does not move across state lines, intrastate commerce is subject to the exclusive control of the state.
Interstate commerce, or commerce among the several states, is the free exchange of commodities between citizens of different states across state lines. Commerce with foreign nations occurs between citizens of the United States and citizens or subjects of foreign governments and, either immediately or at some stage of its progress, is extraterritorial. Commerce with Indian tribes refers to traffic or commercial exchanges involving both the United States and American Indians.
The Commerce Clause was designed to eliminate an intense rivalry between the groups of those states that had tremendous commercial advantage as a result of their proximity to a major harbor, and those states that were not near a harbor. That disparity was the source of constant economic battles among the states. The exercise by Congress of its regulatory power has increased steadily with the growth and expansion of industry and means of transportation.
Power to Regulate
The Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to regulate commerce in order to ensure that the flow of interstate commerce is free from local restraints imposed by various states. When Congress deems an aspect of interstate commerce to be in need of supervision, it will enact legislation that must have some real and rational relation to the subject of regulation. Congress may constitutionally provide for the point at which subjects of interstate commerce become subjects of state law and, therefore, state regulation.
Although the U.S. Constitution places some limits on state power, the states enjoy guaranteed rights by virtue of their reserved powers pursuant to the Tenth Amendment. A state has the inherent and reserved right to regulate its domestic commerce. However, that right must be exercised in a manner that does not interfere with, or place a burden on, interstate commerce, or else Congress may regulate that area of domestic commerce in order to protect interstate commerce from the unreasonable burden. Although a state may not directly regulate, prohibit, or burden interstate or foreign commerce, it may incidentally and indirectly affect it by a bona fide, legitimate, and reasonable exercise of its police powers. States are powerless to regulate commerce with Indian tribes.
Although Congress has the exclusive power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, the presence or absence of congressional action determines whether a state may act in a particular field. The nature of the subject of commerce must be examined in order to decide whether Congress has exclusive control over it. If the subject is national in character and importance, thereby requiring uniform regulation, the power of Congress to regulate it is plenary, or exclusive.
It is for the courts to decide the national or local character of the subject of regulation, by Balancing the national interest against the State Interest in the subject. If the state interest is slight compared with the national interest, the courts will declare the state statute unconstitutional as an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.