Landmark Supreme Court Case: Wickard v. Filburn (1942)
Wickard v. Filburn (1942) is the 80th landmark Supreme Court case, 34th in the Economics module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Wickard v. Filburn (1942)
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 limited the area that farmers could devote to wheat production. Its stated purpose was to stabilize the price of wheat in the national market by controlling the amount of wheat produced. It was motivated by a belief by Congress that great international fluctuations in the supply and the demand for wheat were leading to wide swings in the price of wheat, which were deemed to be harmful to the US agricultural economy.
The Supreme Court’s decision states that the parties had stipulated as to the economic conditions leading to passage of the legislation:
The parties have stipulated a summary of the economics of the wheat industry…. The wheat industry has been a problem industry for some years. Largely as a result of increased foreign production and import restrictions, annual exports of wheat and flour from the United States during the ten-year period ending in 1940 averaged less than 10 percent of total production, while, during the 1920s, they averaged more than 25 percent. The decline in the export trade has left a large surplus in production which, in connection with an abnormally large supply of wheat and other grains in recent years, caused congestion in a number of markets; tied up railroad cars, and caused elevators in some instances to turn away grains, and railroads to institute embargoes to prevent further congestion. Many countries, both importing and exporting, have sought to modify the impact of the world market conditions on their own economy. Importing countries have taken measures to stimulate production and self-sufficiency. The four large exporting countries of Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the United States have all undertaken various programs for the relief of growers. Such measures have been designed, in part at least, to protect the domestic price received by producers. Such plans have generally evolved towards control by the central government. In the absence of regulation, the price of wheat in the United States would be much affected by world conditions. During 1941, producers who cooperated with the Agricultural Adjustment program received an average price on the farm of about $1.16 a bushel, as compared with the world market price of 40 cents a bushel.
Roscoe Filburn was a farmer in what is now suburban Dayton, Ohio. In July 1940, pursuant to the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1938, Roscoe Filburn’s 1941 wheat allotment was established at 11.1 acres (4.5 ha) and a normal yield of 20.1 bushels of wheat per acre (1.4 metric tons per hectare). Filburn was given notice of the allotment in July 1940, before the fall planting of his 1941 crop of wheat, and again in July 1941, before it was harvested. Despite the notices, Filburn planted 23 acres (9.3 ha) and harvested 239 more bushels (6,500 kg) than was allowed from his 11.9 acres (4.8 ha) of excess area.[
Filburn admitted producing wheat in excess of the amount permitted. He maintained, however, that the excess wheat was produced for his private consumption on his own farm and since it never entered commerce at all, much less interstate commerce, he argued that it was not a proper subject of federal regulation under the Commerce Clause.
The Federal District Court ruled in favor of Filburn. The Act required an affirmative vote of farmers by plebiscite to implement the quota. Much of the District Court decision related to the way in which the Secretary of Agriculture had campaigned for passage: the District Court had held that the Secretary’s comments were improper. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court, which called the District Court’s holding (against the campaign methods that led to passage of the quota by farmers) a “manifest error.”
By the time that the case reached the high court, eight out of the nine justices had been appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal legislation. In addition, the case was heard during wartime, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized the United States to enter the Second World War.
Wickard Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the Agricultural Adjustment Act violate the Commerce Clause?
A: Congress may use its Commerce Power to regulate or prohibit activities provided the economic effects of such activities are substantial.
Unanimous holding production quotas under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 were constitutionally applied to agricultural production that was consumed purely intrastate because its effect upon interstate commerce placed it within the power of Congress to regulate under the Commerce Clause. The Court ruled trivial intrastate activity could be regulated by Congress as opposed to applying the test of whether the activity was local or whether its effects were direct or indirect as it had in previous decisions.
This dramatically increased the regulatory power of government by ruling there was a rational interest in regulating intrastate activity provided that viewed in the aggregate, such activity would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. It remains as one of the most important and far-reaching cases concerning the New Deal, and it set a precedent for an expansive reading of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause for decades to come. The Court’s own decision, however, emphasizes the role of the democratic electoral process in confining the abuse of the power of Congress.
United States v. Lopez (1995) was the first decision in six decades to invalidate a federal statute on the grounds that it exceeded the power of the Congress under the Commerce Clause. In Lopez, the Court held that while Congress had broad lawmaking authority under the Commerce Clause, the power was limited and did not extend so far from “commerce” as to authorize the regulation of the carrying of handguns, especially when there was no evidence that carrying them affected the economy on a massive scale. (In a later case, United States v. Morrison, the Court ruled in 2000 that Congress could not make such laws even when there was evidence of aggregate effect.)
The Supreme Court has since relied heavily on Wickard in upholding the power of the federal government to prosecute individuals who grow their own medicinal marijuana pursuant to state law. The Supreme Court would hold in Gonzalez v. Raich (2005) that like with the home-grown wheat at issue in Wickard, home-grown marijuana is a legitimate subject of federal regulation because it competes with marijuana that moves in interstate commerce:
Wickard thus establishes that Congress can regulate purely intrastate activity that is not itself “commercial”, in that it is not produced for sale, if it concludes that failure to regulate that class of activity would undercut the regulation of the interstate market in that commodity.
In 2012, Wickard was central to arguments in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius with both supporters and opponents of the mandate claiming that Wickard supported their positions
Next Economics Case: Berman v. Parker (1954)
Previous Economics Case: U.S. v. Darby Lumber (1941)
Next Case: Betts v. Brady (1942)