US Supreme CourtLandmark Interstate Commerce Clause Case: Wickard v. Filburn 317 U.S. 111 (1942)

Many commentators have argued that Wickard v. Filburn, decided in 1942 is the pivotal Commerce Clause case that will determine the outcome of the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality.

In the case, Roscoe Filburn, was a wheat farmer. At the time, the U.S. government had established limits on wheat production based on acreage owned by a farmer, in order to increase wheat prices during the Great Depression.  Filburn was growing more than the limits permitted in order to feed his chickens. As a result of his over production, 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 decided the case on the basis of the Constitution's Commerce Clause (Article 1 Section 8).  The Court decided that although Filburn's individual wheat growing activities may seem like a drop in the bucket when compared with the national market, his actions enabled him to forego purchasing the wheat on the open market, which thus affected interstate commerce. Thus, Filburn's production could be regulated by the federal government.

The court engaged in a discussion of relevant commerce clause jurisprudence, and cited an earlier case which stated that, "The power of Congress over interstate commerce is plenary and complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution...."

Additional points relevant to the Affordable Care Act include:

  • That the production of wheat for consumption on the farm may be trivial in the particular case is not enough to remove the grower from the scope of federal regulation where his contribution, taken with that of many others similarly situated, is far from trivial.
  • The power to regulate interstate commerce includes the power to regulate the prices at which commodities in that commerce are dealt in and practices affecting such prices.

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