United States v. Lopez, 1995
Alfonso Lopez Jr. brought a handgun and bullets into his high school and was charged under Texas law prohibiting the possession of a firearm on school premises. Shortly thereafter, the state charges were dismissed, and federal agents charged him under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990.
Lopez's lawyers moved to dismiss the charges, saying that it was unconstitutional for Congress to attempt to legislate control over the public schools. The government defended the charge under the U.S. Constitution's interstate commerce clause. The government argued that possession of a firearm leads to violent crime, which can in turn impact the economy and travel.
Rehnquist ruled against the government, arguing that if Congress were permitted to include something so far removed from the definition of "commerce," then it could regulate virtually anything.
"To uphold the Government's contentions here," he wrote, "we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States."
One of the first Supreme Court cases to limit the power of Congress under the commerce clause, United States v. Lopez set an important precedent for the defense of states' rights.
United States v. Morrison, 2000
Christy Brzonkala, a student at Virginia Tech , was allegedly raped by two varsity football players, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. When Virginia Tech lifted Morrison's suspension on the grounds that it was "excessive punishment," Brzonkala filed suit against both players and the school. She argued that the attack violated section 13981 of the Violence Against Women Act.
In an opinion delivered by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Supreme Court ruled that section 13981 was unconstitutional. Citing the precedent of United States v. Lopez, the court found that the act had little to do with interstate commerce, and was therefore not protected under either the commerce clause or the 14th Amendment:
"If the allegations here are true, no civilized system of justice could fail to provide her a remedy for the conduct of respondent Morrison," wrote Rehnquist. "But under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States."
Seminole v. Florida, 1996
In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which required states to negotiate with Indian tribes to create contracts governing Indian casino gambling. In 1996, the Seminole Tribe of Florida sued the state of Florida for refusing to enter into such a negotiation. Florida moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the lawsuit violated Florida's sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment.
In an opinion authored by Rehnquist, the court ruled that the Indian gaming act was not protected under either the Indian Commerce clause or the 14th Amendment. The justices held that Congress did not have the authority to abrogate the sovereign immunity of states as laid out in the 11th Amendment.
Seminole laid the groundwork for later decisions that invalidated damages for state employees who are the victims of age and sex discrimination. But surprisingly, Rehnquist later wrote the court's decision in the 2003 case Nevada v. Hibbs, which upheld the right of a state employee to sue under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Nevada v. Hibbs, 2003
In 1997, William Hibbs, a Nevada state employee, requested unpaid leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 2003 (FMLA), which allows men and women to take up to three months off to care for family without being fired. His employer refused, contending the state was immune from such federal mandates. Hibbs sued in federal court.
Writing for a 6-3 majority, Rehnquist upheld the right of state employees to sue under the FMLA. The court found that in enacting the FMLA, Congress had expressly annulled states' 11th Amendment immunity because of significant evidence of a long history of sex discrimination in the way states grant leave benefits.
Acknowledging the court's recent rulings that protected states from employee suits for discrimination, Rehnquist wrote that the FMLA was different. Its purpose, he wrote, was to "protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace" by removing "the pervasive sex-role stereotype that caring for family members is women's work."