Interstate Commerce

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. When most people think about the commerce clause, they imagine Congress passing laws regulating the buying and selling of goods. However, many people are surprised to find out that Congress also has used the interstate commerce clause to promote civil rights and civil liberties. In fact, Congress used its power to regulate interstate commerce when it passed Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—one of Congress’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation. Thus, the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause has been instrumental in safeguarding the civil rights and civil liberties of American citizens.

Congress first attempted to eliminate discrimination in public inns and places of public entertainment in the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution only applied to ‘‘state action.’’ In other words, the Fourteenth Amendment only prohibited discrimination by the state and did not prohibit discrimination by private individuals. Consequently, this case determined that Congress could not pass laws under the Fourteenth Amendment that would prohibit discrimination in privately owned public accommodations.

Despite the ruling in the Civil Rights Cases, some private business owners freely chose not to discriminate against African Americans in their businesses. Nevertheless, in the mid-twentieth century, there still were a significant number of businesses, particularly in the South, who chose to deny access to African Americans. Other businesses chose to segregate their facilities. In an effort to correct these forms of racial discrimination, civil rights activists challenged these discriminatory policies in the courts in the 1950s and 1960s; however, the 1883 ruling in the Civil Rights Cases hindered any legal success. In Peterson v. Greenville, 373 U.S. 244 (1963), Chief Justice Warren reiterated that the Supreme Court was limited by the ‘‘state action’’ doctrine established in the Civil Rights Cases, and thus the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit private businesses from discriminating against African Americans.

This put Congress in a bind. It wanted to end racial segregation in private accommodations, but the Supreme Court made it clear that Congress could not base its authority to create such laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, Congress decided to anchor its authority to make this type of legislation in its power to regulate interstate commerce. Since the creation of the Constitution, Congress’s powers under the interstate commerce clause had expanded significantly.

Over the years, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could do more than regulate the buying and selling of goods. For instance, in the nineteenth century, the Court ruled that Congress had the authority to regulate the navigation and transportation of goods. In the mid-twentieth century, the Court ruled that Congress had the authority to regulate the manufacturing and production of goods as well as regulate any actions that had a ‘‘direct and substantial effect’’ on the interstate flow of goods and people or an impact on the national economy. Likewise, the Supreme Court asserted that Congress had ‘‘national police powers,’’ which gave it the authority to pass any legislation that promoted the health, safety, morality, or general welfare of the nation.

Because Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce had expanded, many members of Congress believed that they could eliminate racial discrimination in public accommodations using their authority to regulate interstate commerce. After all, many members of Congress believed that excluding African Americans had a ‘‘direct and substantial’’ impact on the national economy. Moreover, racial discrimination was a moral wrong that ‘‘national police powers’’ would give Congress power to correct. Using this logic, Congress passed Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination and segregation in hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, barbershops, gasoline stations, places of entertainment, and all other forms of public accommodation.

Congress’s authority to pass Title II of this act was challenged in the cases of Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964), and Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964). Both of these cases, however, affirmed Congress’s power. In these companion cases, the Supreme Court pointed out that Congress had evidence that racial discrimination placed burdens on interstate commerce. For instance, African Americans encountered difficulties when traveling because discriminatory polices often kept them from finding hotels in which they could stay and restaurants in which they could eat. Consequently, African Americans were restricted in their right to travel, since people cannot travel if they cannot find a place to stay or eat. The Court also explained that when African Americans are restricted in their travels, this has a negative impact on the nation’s economy, since fewer goods and services are purchased. Furthermore, the Court agreed that Congress could regulate interstate commerce and intrastate activities that had an impact on commerce, since Congress had the authority to legislate moral wrongs under its ‘‘national police power.’’

With the Supreme Court’s approval of Congress’s authority to pass Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress continued to use its powers for regulating interstate commerce to pass other legislation promoting civil rights and civil liberties. However, the constitutionality of some of these laws was challenged in the late twentieth century.

For instance, in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that Congress exceeded its powers under the commerce clause when it passed a law making it illegal to possess a firearm in a school zone. Similarly, in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Court decided that Congress exceeded its commerce clause power when it passed the Violence Against Women Act, which gave female victims a right to seek a federal remedy for civil rights violations. In both of these cases, the Supreme Court found that these laws were criminal statutes that did not have any economic enterprise. Despite these recent rulings, the interstate commerce clause has been and continues to be an important tool for Congress in the protection of civil rights and civil liberties.

FRANCENE M. ENGEL

References and Further Reading

  • Cortner, Richard C. Civil Rights and Public Accommodations: The Heart of Atlanta Motel and McClung Cases. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964)
  • Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964)
  • Peterson v. Greenville, 373 U.S. 244 (1963)
  • United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995)
  • United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000)

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