The legacy of retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Steven’s is forever tarnished by his befuddled vote on Gonzales v. Raich in 2005. This case, one of the most important in decades, was decisive in issues of individual liberty versus big government control and was key state’s rights case. Unfortunately, Steven voted with the authoritarian Scalia. The case was decided against medical marijuana consumer Angel Raich and for abhorrent Attorney Generals John Ashcroft and Roberto Gonzales.
To support the government’s case, Justice Stevens had arrive at a bizarrely paradoxical conclusion. The government claimed that the Commerce Clause regulating interstate commerce allowed it to restrict the non-commercial medical use of marijuana inside a state could somehow be defined as commerce between states. As Justice Clarence Thomas was quick to assert, this makes absolutely no sense and was unjustified. But those voting with Stevens and Scalia included Kennedy, and (shamefully) Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, along with O’Conner and Thomas side with patient Angel Raich. Justice Sandra Day O’Conner said:
- “Relying on Congress’ abstract assertions, the Court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one’s own home for one’s own medicinal use. This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently.”
Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissenting opinion spoke clearly of the intellectual dishonesty of the government’s case and the far ranging consequences. He wrote, (emphasis mine)
- “Respondent’s local cultivation and consumption of marijuana is not “Commerce … among the several States.”
- “Certainly no evidence from the founding suggests that “commerce” included the mere possession of a good or some personal activity that did not involve trade or exchange for value. In the early days of the Republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession, and consumption of marijuana.”
- If the Federal Government can regulate growing a half-dozen cannabis plants for personal consumption (not because it is interstate commerce, but because it is inextricably bound up with interstate commerce), then Congress’ Article I powers — as expanded by the Necessary and Proper Clause — have no meaningful limits. Whether Congress aims at the possession of drugs, guns, or any number of other items, it may continue to “appropria[te] state police powers under the guise of regulating commerce.”
- “If the majority is to be taken seriously, the Federal Government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives, and potluck suppers throughout the 50 States. This makes a mockery of Madison’s assurance to the people of New York that the “powers delegated” to the Federal Government are “few and defined”, while those of the States are “numerous and indefinite.”
So, tragically, the majority with Stevens and Scalia, decided the federal government could block an American citizen’s right to grow and use a plant substance needed for survival! Few events in recent decades have so shifted power to big federal government while whittling away at state’s rights and denying autonomy and choices of Americans in making their own health care and life decisions. This was “judicial activism” at its worst.
Even with this blow to the rights of states and restriction of liberty of American citizens, the cause for which Angel Raich fought is flourishing nicely. Angel continues to benefit from the medicinal herb, and medical marijuana is legal in over a dozen states. The tyranny supported by the Raich decision is being overcome by the assertiveness of the American people in their state’s votes, along with a President not pressing the issue.
John Paul Stevens made many good judgments in his long career, but his faulty thinking on Raich forever tarnishes his legacy and left Americans far less free.