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Body Armor Limits Left Undisturbed by U.S. High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court declined a chance to put new restrictions on the power of Congress, leaving intact a federal law that bars people convicted of a violent felony from owning body armor.

The justices today turned away an appeal by Cedrick Bernard Alderman, a Washington state man who sought to overturn his conviction for possessing a bulletproof vest. He had previously been convicted of robbery.

The case, had the court considered it, might have affected the legal challenges to President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul. Both issues turn on the scope of Congress’s constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia criticized their colleagues for not taking up the case, saying they were allowing the “nullification” of earlier rulings limiting Congress’s authority.

The lower court decision upholding the body-armor law “threatens the proper limits on Congress’s commerce clause power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the states,” Thomas wrote for the pair.

Seattle police officers discovered the bulletproof vest when they arrested Alderman in 2005 on suspicion of selling cocaine. He pleaded guilty, reserving his right to appeal, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

A federal appeals court upheld the conviction on a 2-1 vote, saying the vest had crossed state lines. The vest was sold by a California manufacturer -- BAE Systems Plc’s Safariland unit -- to a distributor in Washington.

Rehnquist Court

The high court has yet to consider a direct challenge to Congress’s commerce clause powers under Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the court in 2005.

Under Roberts’s predecessor, William Rehnquist, the court took steps to rein in Congress. In a 1995 decision that invalidated a federal law barring guns near schools, the five- justice majority called for “a distinction between what is truly national and truly local.”

The movement to limit Congress lost much of its momentum in 2005 when the court ruled that federal narcotics laws can be applied to marijuana even when the drug never crosses state lines and is used only to relieve pain or nausea.

Administration Position

Alderman argued unsuccessfully that body armor lacks enough of a connection to interstate commerce to warrant federal regulation. “The federal possession prohibition accomplishes nothing states could not do through their own criminal law,” he argued.

Obama administration lawyers urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal.

The body armor law “directly regulates the interstate market in body armor by eliminating a dangerous and harmful segment of that market, namely purchases or other acquisitions by violent felons,” acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal wrote.

The health-care suits present a related issue, challenging Congress’s power to require people to either get insurance or face a penalty. The Obama administration says mandatory participation is a crucial part of the broader law because it drives down costs.

The case is Alderman v. United States, 09-1555.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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