Jones v. United States - Oral Argument - March 21, 2000

Jones v. United States

Media for Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 22, 2000 in Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 2000 in Jones v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in No. 99-5739, Dewey Jones v. the United States.

Mr. Falk.

Donald M. Falk:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

18 U.S.C. 844(i) makes arson a Federal crime if it damages property used in interstate commerce or property used in any activity affecting interstate commerce.

The question here is whether petitioner's arson of a private residence comes within the statute because that home received natural gas and was mortgaged and insured by out-of-state firms, and if so, whether that application of the statute to that crime is constitutional.

In the Government's view, the power to regulate interstate commerce enables Congress to make a Federal crime out of any act that threatens or damages property having connections to interstate commerce or that interrupts or disrupts an ongoing commercial relationship with out-of-state parties.

That view of the Commerce Clause would enable Congress to enact general Federal protections for virtually all property, including real property, although the general protection of property is one of the most basic core elements of an area of traditional state concern and competence.

In the Government's view of the Federal protection of property, the... Congress can make Federal crimes out of things like scrawling graffiti or breaking a window, and Congress has in... in the Government's view made Federal crimes out of setting fire to a gas barbecue grill or perhaps a television.

And here, of course, the Government has prosecuted as a Federal crime, the arson of a private residence.

The Government has not identified any limit on the Federal power to prohibit arson, although arson is a quintessentially local crime.

John Paul Stevens:

Mr. Falk, are you conceding in your argument that the statute does apply?

You seem to be arguing the constitutional issue first.

Donald M. Falk:

No, we do not concede that the statute applies.

We do not believe it... it applies.

We believe, however, that in reading the statute in this case, it is important to look at the constitutional considerations that would ensue from applying the statute in this case, and that in light of those considerations, the statute should be construed to avoid what we view as difficult, indeed, doubtful at best, constitutional issues.

John Paul Stevens:

Do you think if... if we did not have the constitutional concerns in the background, do you think the statutory language is clearly with you or against you?

Donald M. Falk:

We believe the statutory language is with us even without the constitutional considerations in the background.

When you look at the plain language of the statute and the understanding of... of the statute, when you look at the normal sense of what it means for property to be used in an activity affecting commerce, which is the subset that was applied in this case, we believe that it requires an active use of the physical property, which after all, it is the damage to the physical property that's supposed to provide the link to interstate commerce here.

And we think, in fact, it's quite telling that there was some concern among some Members of Congress that this statute did not reach private residences.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Would it torture the words of the statute to say that the home was used to obtain a mortgage?

Donald M. Falk:

Well, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that it tortures the words of the statute, Justice Kennedy, but it certainly twists them a bit.

It is not... it may be used in a... in an abstract sense, but it is not a use of the physical property and it is the physical property that is really at issue here.

And it's not a use in an activity.

Getting a mortgage is a... is a single transaction rather than an activity.

And this is... this Court has a long history and Congress has a long history of using the word activity affecting interstate commerce to mean an enterprise--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

I... I acknowledge that in the ordinary sense you use the mortgage to get the house.

You don't use the house to get the mortgage.

I can understand that.

But I'm not sure the statute necessarily requires us to reach that result.

Donald M. Falk:

--Well, we believe that... that in the normal diction, in the normal, ordinary understanding of those words, when they're read entirely in context, property used in an activity affecting interstate commerce, that is required, and we think that's reinforced by the... by the... the sense that the Congress that passed this statute apparently had.