With the retirement announcement last week of Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, it's not too soon to begin to think about how history will view his 34 years on the high court. As many commentators have noted, Justice Stevens was the last appointed without a televised confirmation, and he may have been the last truly non-partisan pick. Looking over his many opinions, what stands out, particularly in more recent years, is not his leadership of the so-called "liberal" wing of the U.S. Supreme Court, but his unyielding effort to steer the Court away from a formalism that threatened at times to undermine the continuing vitality of our constitutional commitments.
An example is Justice Stevens's opinion for the majority in Gonzales v. Raich. That 2005 case concerned the question whether the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) prevented individuals in California from possessing, obtaining, or manufacturing cannabis for their personal medical use. At the time, California was one of several states that authorized individuals to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Whether these laws ran afoul of the CSA depended in part upon whether the CSA was within Congress's power to enact under the Commerce Clause.
That the Act could be constitutionally challenged was a result of the Court's attempt to rein in Congress's power under the Commerce Clause in two earlier cases, United States v. Lopez, a 1995 decision, and United States v. Morrison, a 2000 decision. In each of those cases, a majority of the Court concluded that Congress could not regulate intrastate activity having a substantial effect on interstate commerce unless that activity has some relation to "commerce" or some some kind of "economic enterprise." In Lopez, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 failed this test because the Act criminalized mere possession of a gun, which, in the Court's view, was not an inherently commercial or economic activity.
One could reasonably have believed that this reason would apply to a federal law prohibiting marijuana possession for personal medicinal use, and that is precisely what Justice Sandra Day O'Connor argued in her Gonzales dissent--that the "possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has no apparent commercial character." As she correctly observed, "Everyone agrees that the marijuana at issue in this case was never in the stream of commerce."
This line of reasoning, if carried to its logical conclusion, would have severely curtailed the ability of Congress to act under the Commerce Clause. But Justice Stevens, in his Gonzales majority opinion, steered the Court back toward an approach more deferential to Congressional judgments. Under that approach, when Congress elects to regulate a national market in a commodity--and there is no real doubt the CSA is an effort to do just that--the Court will not second-guess Congress's determination that the exemption of local possession of one commodity could have a substantial effect on the larger interstate market.
Of course, the Commerce Clause must have some limits--the Constitution, after all, is a grant of enumerated powers to the federal government. But whether an activity does or does not have a commercial character is a judicially-contrived limit that privileges judicial assessment of just what makes an activity commercial over the decided judgment of the majority of the people's representatives in Congress. So what limit is there on the commerce power? Well, there is democracy: as Chief Justice John Marshall put it nearly two centuries ago, "The wisdom and the discretion of Congress, their identity with the people, and the influence which their constituents possess at election are, in this, as in many other instances ... the sole restraints on which they have relied, to secure them from its abuse."