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Printz v. United States

The Dissent Offers A Different Reading Of History

Of the four dissenters, several wrote opinions questioning the majority's reading of history, particularly of the ruling in New York. Justice Stevens, in an opinion joined by the other three--Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Souter--held that Congress was fully authorized by the Constitution to impose affirmative obligations (i.e., "You must do this . . . ") on citizens. "This conclusion," he wrote, "is firmly supported by the text of the Constitution, the early history of the Nation, decisions of this Court, and a correct understanding of the basic structure of the Federal Government." The present case did not require a study of the more complex issues raised in New York, he wrote, nor was it necessary to consider questions such as whether local or federal officials could better carry out a federal program. "The question," as Justice Stevens put it, "is whether Congress, acting on behalf of the people of the entire Nation, may require local law enforcement officers to perform certain duties during the interim needed for the development of a federal gun control program."

The measures suggested in the Brady Act's interim provisions were appropriate in a national emergency, such as that posed by the rash of handgun-related crimes. In its ruling, the Court was going beyond upholding the powers of the states under the Tenth Amendment, Justice Stevens suggested, and instead limiting the authority of Congress. "There is not a clause, sentence, or paragraph in the entire text of the Constitution of the United States," he wrote, "that supports the proposition that a local police officer can ignore a command contained in a statute enacted by Congress pursuant to an express delegation of power enumerated in Article I" of the Constitution. Justice Stevens went on to question the Court's review of the historical record in New York and elsewhere. He concluded by observing that the provision before the Court's review was comparable to a statute requiring local law-enforcement officers to report the identities of missing children to the Crime Control Center of the Justice Department, rather than "an offensive federal command to a sovereign state."

Justice Souter, too, dissented; his principal difference with Justice Stevens being that his primary objections came from The Federalist. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Stevens, issued an opinion in which he added to the latter's dissent by noting the uniquely American difficulty of reconciling the power of the national government with that of local government. Looking at the past experience of federal program implementation, he noted, it was not necessary to read the Brady Act as overwhelming a state government's powers. As for the majority's view that measures such as those provided in the act were unconstitutional, Justice Breyer sided with Justice Stevens that "the Constitution is itself silent on the matter."

Additional topics

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