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Wickard v. Filburn - Significance

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Wickard was the highwater mark of the Court's extension of federal regulatory power under the Commerce Clause.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in 1932 and immediately set about attempting to lift the nation out of the Great Depression. The first set of economic and social reforms constituting what was called the "New Deal" was passed almost immediately after Roosevelt took office the next year. Almost as quickly, most of the reform legislation was declared unconstitutional by the ultra-conservative majority that controlled the Supreme Court. Roosevelt responded in 1935 by introducing a second set of programs, essentially amounting to a second New Deal. When the justices disapproved of some of these measures too, Roosevelt developed a plan to "pack" the Court with justices of his own choosing who would approve his legislative package. The court-packing plan failed in Congress, but Roosevelt still got his wish. In 1937, the justices who opposed the New Deal began to retire, while other swing votes on the Court began to rule the president's way.

The Second Agricultural Act (1938), the legislation at issue in Wickard v. Filburn, had already passed constitutional muster in Mulford v. Smith, in which the Court had approved tobacco-growing quotas. The issue in Wickard was somewhat different, for this case concerned excess production of a crop, wheat, which was never taken to market. Also, by the time Wickard worked its way up to the Supreme Court, only one of the eight justices who decided the case was a holdover from the pre-Roosevelt era. That justice, Owen Roberts, was the crucial swing vote--the "switch in time that saved nine [justices]"--who began to reorient the Court in 1937. Wickard marked the Court's greatest expansion of federal regulatory power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

Roscoe C. Filburn worked a small farm in Ohio, where in additional to raising poultry and producing dairy products for the market, he planted a small crop of wheat. The wheat was intended for use by his family and for animal feed. In 1941, he sowed twelve more acres of wheat than were permitted under the Second Agricultural Act. The extra planting yielded 249 bushels of wheat on which he was obliged to pay a fine of 49 cents per bushel. Filburn responded by filing suit in federal court against the secretary of agriculture and others, asking the court to declare that the quota requirements of the act violated his right to due process under law. After the district court ruled that the federal government could not fine Filburn, the secretary of agriculture appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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