WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, in a decision as bold as anything it has done in years, nullified yesterday a 5-year-old federal ban on carrying a gun to school, and seemed to be threatening other national laws, too.
The 5-4 ruling reclaimed the court's power to curb Congress' passage of sweeping laws to deal with the nation's social problems, and instructed lawmakers to confine their efforts to "truly national" matters.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, signaling the importance of what the court was doing, assigned the main opinion to himself. His opinion was crafted in wide-ranging language reminiscent of the court's rhetoric in a series of decisions in the 1930s striking down early New Deal laws that granted the federal government broad powers to pull the nation from the Great Depression.
One justice who dissented yesterday, David H. Souter, referred directly to that era when he questioned whether the new ruling meant "a return to the untenable jurisprudence from which this court extricated itself almost 60 years ago. The answer is not reassuring."
The ruling does not mean that students or others will be free to carry guns to school or to carry them in school neighborhoods. Some 40 states have laws similar to the 1990 federal law that was struck down yesterday. Maryland is one of those states. The ruling dealt only with federal powers.
Even within that realm, though, the ruling potentially could affect other federal gun control laws now awaiting court challenges, and perhaps a wide range of other government regulatory laws.
The Constitution gives Congress wide power to control activity that touches more than one state. It is that "commerce power" that was at issue yesterday, and it is the power Congress has relied upon for decades in enacting controls on the nation's business and social life.
In sentiment, the decision appeared to be close to the states' rights outlook of the new Republican majority in Congress. It may foreshadow a period in the nation's political and legal history when the federal government is put increasingly on the defensive about its authority.
The chief justice conceded that the court repeatedly had allowed Congress to enact broader laws to regulate Americans, but then he declared bluntly: "We decline here to proceed any further."
The court majority made clear that it was putting Congress on notice to respect the Constitution's "distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local." The court, Chief Justice Rehnquist said, would not allow that distinction to be obliterated.
The five justices in the majority yesterday held together, with none quibbling about the language in the main opinion.
But two justices who joined the majority -- Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor -- issued a separate opinion that seemed designed to reassure Congress that the court would not move far beyond yesterday's ruling against the school-zone gun ban. Congress, they said, retains strong powers to pass laws to regulate many aspects of the nation's social and economic life.
They also vowed that they would not support the overruling of many prior court rulings endorsing broad congressional power. Still, they, too, counseled Congress to keep the U.S. government out of "areas of traditional state concern."
Justices Kennedy and O'Connor said the court should stand ready to protect states from federal intrusion if Congress "tipped the balance too far" toward federal authority.
4 justices dissent
The ruling produced a sharply worded dissent by four justices, including the two Clinton nominees, Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. First-year Justice Breyer wrote the main dissenting opinion and, for the first time in his brief career, took the unusual step of reading aloud from his dissent in the courtroom. Normally, dissenting justices remain silent at that time.
The dissenters, saying that violence in and around schools undermines education and the future of the nation's work force, complained that the ruling "threatens legal uncertainty in an area of law that . . . seemed reasonably well settled" -- Congress's power to deal with crime.
Paul D. Kamenar, executive legal director of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, which regularly challenges federal regulatory power, said his group was ecstatic over the ruling.
He predicted that the ruling would help curtail government authority in a number of other areas, including environmental protection and safeguards for endangered species.
One major Republican project that might be threatened by the ruling is the effort to create a national law that essentially would federalize much of the civil justice system, including lawsuits over defective products and professional services.
The new decision also may have put into doubt last year's law that was designed to protect abortion clinics from violence. In fact, a federal judge in Milwaukee -- using reasoning very close to that used by the court majority yesterday -- recently ruled the clinic protection law unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress' powers.
Yesterday's ruling dealt directly only with the 1990 law that made it a federal crime to have a gun in a school or within 1,000 feet of a school, but it may also have raised at least temporary questions about laws passed by Congress last year to ban many assault weapons and to require a waiting period for handgun purchases -- the so-called Brady bill that is now under constitutional challenge in federal courts.
A gun control group, Handgun Control Inc., argued that the new decision "was narrow in its scope and would have no foreseeable effect on other gun control laws." The group also said Congress could act, and should do so quickly, to repair the flaw the court found in the school-zone gun law -- a failure by Congress to demonstrate that local gun ownership has a link to activity beyond a single state's borders.
Civil rights laws
Many civil rights laws are based on the commerce clause that was at issue yesterday. But Justices Kennedy and O'Connor, in their separate opinion, said explicitly that the decision does not undercut prior rulings upholding civil rights laws based on Congress' power over commerce.
The chief justice said that Congress had reached well beyond its commerce powers in enacting the school-zone gun ban. Rejecting the government's claim that guns threaten violence and violence at school threatens education, the court majority said that that claim would enable Congress virtually to take over public schools -- traditionally, a purely local matter.
Since the ruling split the court so closely, changes in the court's membership in the next few years could mean that the decision would not last. Among the justices, one from the majority -- Chief Justice Rehnquist -- and one from the dissenters -- Justice John Paul Stevens -- are considered most likely to retire next.
The court's decision apparently was a difficult one to reach. The justices studied the case of U.S. vs. Lopez for more than five months before ruling upon it. Yesterday, it took six separate opinions, totaling 108 pages, to spell out everyone's views.
The case began in March three years ago, when Alfonzo Lopez Jr., then a senior at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas, carried a concealed and unloaded .38-caliber pistol to school. Based on an anonymous tip, school officials confronted the youth. He was prosecuted under the federal law, and he challenged its constitutionality.
He lost that challenge and was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison.