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Printz v. United States

The Majority Takes Its Cue From History

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed by a 5-4 vote. Because there was no text in the Constitution which addressed the specific question of whether Congress could legally compel state officers to execute federal law, wrote Justice Scalia, the Court looked for its answers in "historical understanding and practice, in the Constitution's structure, and in this Court's jurisprudence." Though he warned that by itself an observation of constitutional practice was inconclusive, Justice Scalia noted that such an observation "tends to negate the existence of the congressional power asserted here." The early enactments of Congress showed that the federal government considered it within its power to require state judges to enforce federal law in the judicial branch, but there was less evidence to justify such congressional influence in the state executive realm. Even though The Federalist contained portions suggesting that the federal government could impose responsibilities on state officers, there was nothing therein to suggest that these responsibilities could be forced on the states without consent. The assumption instead seemed to be that the states would consent, as Justice O'Connor had observed in FERC v. Mississippi (1982). The historical record simply did not bear out the existence of "executive commandeering federal statutes," except perhaps in very recent years.

Turning to the Constitution itself, one saw at work a system of "dual sovereignty," whereby states surrendered some of their powers and gained others. "The Framers," Justice Scalia wrote, "rejected the concept of a central government that would act upon and through the States, and instead designed a system in which the State and Federal Governments would exercise concurrent authority over the people." To simply "impress into its service . . . at no cost to itself . . . the police officers of the 50 States" would be an unlawful way of augmenting the federal government's power. If the federal government exerted too much control over the states, this could also have an ill effect on the separation of powers into three branches. The Brady Act, Justice Scalia wrote, "effectively transfers the President's responsibility to administer the laws enacted by Congress . . . thousands of CLEOs in the 50 States . . . "

The dissent asserted that the Brady Bill was valid by the "Necessary and Proper" Clause in Article I, section 8, which grants Congress power "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution" the powers granted to Congress--in this case the Commerce Clause grant of power to regulate handgun sales. Justice Scalia held that the Brady Bill's constitutionality could not be sustained on this basis alone, not when it violated the principle of state sovereignty. Citing New York v. United States (1992), Justice Scalia held that it was unlawful for the federal government to directly compel a state to enact or enforce a federal regulatory program. The whole object of the Brady Act's provisions in this situation was to compel the state executive toward certain actions, Justice Scalia wrote; hence it was pointless to attempt, as the dissent did, a type of "balancing analysis."

Given that it had eliminated CLEOs' responsibility to conduct background checks, the Court had no need to review the petitioners' concerns about the provisions requiring them to destroy Brady Forms after a certain amount of time. As for the more significant severability question--whether the interim provisions could be pulled out of the Brady Act without invalidating the entire act--the Court declined to address this issue. Removal of CLEOs' requirements would leave open the question of whether firearms dealers could be required to comply, and since no such dealers were before the Court as petitioners, the question was left unanswered.

Justice O'Connor issued a short concurring statement, as did Justice Thomas. The former noted that precedent, both in the form of earlier Court rulings, and of past practice, supported the Court's ruling. The Brady Bill, she wrote, further violated the Tenth Amendment's reservation of powers to the states. Justice Thomas, too, cited Tenth Amendment backing for the Court's decision, and wrote separately to further emphasize the enumeration--and therefore limitation--of federal powers over the states.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentPrintz v. United States - Significance, John Hinckley Helps Write The Brady Bill, The Majority Takes Its Cue From History