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Katzenbach v. McClung


Katzenbach v. McClung was the Court's most expansive reading of Congress's commerce power, which thereafter needed only a "rational basis" for connecting interstate commerce and local economic activity in order to justify federal regulation.

Ollie's Barbeque was a small, family-owned restaurant which operated in Birmingham, Alabama, and which seated 220 customers. It was located on a state highway and was 11 blocks from an interstate highway. In a typical year, approximately half of the food it purchased from a local supplier originated out of state. It catered to local families and white collar workers and provided take-out service to African American customers.

In 1964, Congress passed a Civil Rights Act which was intended to eliminate discrimination against African Americans. One section of the act, Title II, was specifically intended to grant African Americans full access to public facilities such as hotels, restaurants, and public recreation areas. On the same day, the Supreme Court heard challenges to Title II from a motel owner, in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, and from Ollie McClung. Both claimed that the federal government had no right to impose any regulations on small, private businesses. Both ultimately lost. Ollie McClung won an initial round when he obtained an injunction in federal district court preventing the government from enforcing Title II against his restaurant. But then the attorney general appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Authorizes Use of Commerce Power to Enforce Civil Rights

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Clark observed that Congress could exercise its commerce power to enforce the public accommodations provision of the Civil Rights Act against a restaurant that served food which had passed through interstate commerce. While the impact of the restaurant's segregationist policies was by itself negligible, when all such local activity was added together, the economic effect could be substantial. What is more, Clark wrote, racial discrimination at Ollie's and other restaurants like it could act as a deterrent to individuals and industries who might wish to relocate to Alabama from other states. In order to bring the commerce power to bear on discriminatory practices, Congress need only demonstrate that there was a "rational basis" for doing so:

Here . . . Congress has determined for itself that refusals of service to Negroes have imposed burdens both upon the interstate flow of food and upon the movement of products generally. Of course, the mere fact that Congress has said when particular activity shall be deemed to affect commerce does not preclude further examination by this Court. But where we find that the legislators, in light of the facts and testimony before them, have a rational basis for finding a chosen regulatory scheme necessary to the protection of commerce, our investigation is at an end.

As the Court noted in the McClung case, the power of Congress in the field of interstate commerce is "broad and sweeping." It proved to be an effective tool for combatting racism, which the Court, led by Earl Warren, saw not as a local problem, but a national one requiring a nationwide solution. Nothing in McClung, though, limits the extensive reach of the commerce power to matters involving racial discrimination. In 1976, the Court struck down legislation based on the Commerce Clause for the first time in 40 years. The issue in National League of Cities v. Usery was the legitimacy of the minimum wage and maximum hour provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. But while in Usery the Court found these provisions an unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government into affairs properly governed by the state, this opinion was overruled less than a decade later in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985). The conflict between federal authority and states' rights, again fought on Commerce Clause grounds, resurfaced in 1995. In United States v. Lopez the Court, by a one-vote majority, struck down the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990 on grounds that the act exceeded Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate activities bearing some relation to interstate commerce--in this case the transportation of arms across state lines.

Related Cases

  • Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964).
  • National League of Cites v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976).
  • Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528 (1985).
  • United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Katzenbach v. McClung - Significance, Further Readings