Happy SCOTUS Opinion Day, Legal Insurrection readers! We’ve got several opinions coming out today. Still waiting for some of the most controversial ones — three Texas cases dealing with abortion, affirmative action, and immigration — but this morning’s opinions cover some serious constitutional rights.

In day’s first opinion, Taylor v. United States, the Court continued to follow a broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause in ruling that it was proper for the federal government to prosecute a criminal defendant, David Taylor, who was part of a Virginia gang that robbed drug dealers.

The crimes at issue were two home invasions that targeted marijuana dealers. Taylor and his fellow gang members demanded drugs and money from the occupants of the homes, but in both cases, walked away without any drugs and only a small amount of money, jewelry, cell phones, etc.

Taylor was prosecuted under the Hobbs Act, which targets robberies and extortion where the defendant’s conduct “obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce.” In other words, this is a federal law where Congress is exerting its authority under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution, also known as the “Commerce Clause,” which gives the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce.

Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce interpreted to include even some entirely local activities

The proper scope of the Commerce Clause has been the subject of much debate and controversy, with limited government advocates arguing for more restrictive interpretations, but the Court has a long history of taking a very broad and expansive approach.

In a 1905 case, Swift v. United States, the Court held that a federal law could regulate Chicago meatpackers, even though their business was entirely local, because the meatpacking industry in Chicago was part of and affected the overall interstate beef commerce, including ranchers, butchers, consumers, etc.

One century later, in Gonzales v. Raich, the Court reached a similar conclusion that the Commerce Clause granted Congress the power to regulate the interstate market for drugs, even when such activities don’t cross state borders.

If Congress can regulate interstate drug commerce, then they can also regulate interstate drug theft

Taylor’s first trial resulted in a hung jury and on retrial, he sought to argue that the marijuana dealers they robbed dealt only with locally-grown marijuana. In other words, because the drug dealers were not dealing across state lines, this wasn’t interstate commerce and therefore federal prosecution was not proper.  The trial court disagreed, excluded the evidence, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling.

The Court rejected Taylor’s argument as well, in a 7 to 1 vote with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito cited the Raich decision, noting that “the Commerce Clause gives Congress authority to regulate the national market for marijuana, including the authority to proscribe the purely intrastate production, possession, and sale of this controlled substance.”

Continued Alito:

Because Congress may regulate these intrastate activities based on their aggregate effect on interstate commerce, it follows that Congress may also regulate intrastate drug theft. And since the Hobbs Act criminalizes robberies and attempted robberies that affect any commerce “over which the United States has jurisdiction,” §1951(b)(3), the prosecution in a Hobbs Act robbery case satisfies the Act’s commerce element if it shows that the defendant robbed or attempted to rob a drug dealer of drugs or drug proceeds. By targeting a drug dealer in this way, a robber necessarily affects or attempts to affect commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction.

So, even though Taylor’s gang didn’t actually get any marijuana from the homes they robbed, because there was evidence that they targeted those specific homes because they were occupied by drug dealers and believed they would be able to get marijuana, as well as money the dealers had earned from selling marijuana, the Court said that prosecution under the Hobbs Act was proper.

One final not really relevant but still entertaining note: the Court’s opinion says that the name of Taylor’s gang was the “Southwest Goonz.”

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.