379 U.S. 294 (1964), argued 5 Oct. 1964, decided 14 Dec. 1964 by vote of 9 to 0; Clark for the Court, Black, Douglas, and Goldberg in separate concurrences. This decision is the Supreme Court's most expansive reading of the constitutional grant of power to Congress to regulate interstate commerce. The Court held that the Commerce Clause authorized Congress to regulate the racially discriminatory seating practices of Ollie's Barbecue, a small restaurant that purchased all of its food locally and served a local clientele. The discrimination was held to be subject to Congress's commerce power because some of the food that Ollie's purchased from its local supplier had originated out of state.
The Court stated that Congress need only demonstrate a “rational basis” for concluding that the local activity aggregated with other similar local activity would create a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce. The Court found that Congress could have rationally assumed that race discrimination by local restaurants would reduce the amount of food served in those restaurants and consequently reduce the amount of food purchased in interstate commerce by their suppliers. The Court suggested further that Congress could have reasonably concluded that race discrimination by local restaurants would deter individuals and industries from relocating through interstate commerce into areas where such practices prevailed.
The Court evidently accepted such an attenuated connection to interstate commerce, and thus assigned such pervasive legislative power to Congress under the Commerce Clause, because race discrimination demanded a national legislative solution. But nothing in the Court's opinion confines the Court's expansive reading of Congress's commerce power only to race discrimination cases. Thus, Katzenbach stands as authority for an apparently unlimited power in Congress to regulate any local activity if some aggregate economic impact on interstate commerce can be plausibly posited. In the Rehnquist Court, however, that assumption has been challenged. For example, in United States v. Lopez (1995), the justices held that the commerce power could not be used as the basis for Congress to pass laws making it a crime knowingly to possess a firearm within one thousand feet of a public or private school because the act did not flow from any enumerated power.
Thomas R. McCoy