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Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 

Supreme Court of the United States






The Scope of Congresss Powers




The Tenth Amendment as a Federalism-Based Limitation

Quick Notes

In 1993, Congress enacted the "Brady Bill," aimed at controlling the flow of guns. As a temporary 5-year measure, the law ordered local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on prospective purchasers, until a national computerized system for doing these checks could be phased in. Printz, a county sheriff in Montana, objected to the background-check requirement and sued.  He argued that under New York v. US, Congress could not force him to conduct background checks on the federal government's behalf.


The Court explained that while Congress may require the federal government to regulate commerce directly, in this case by performing background-checks on applicants for handgun ownership, the Necessary and Proper Clause does not empower it to compel state CLEOs to fulfill its federal tasks for it - even temporarily



o         So New York v. us. and Printz seem to stand for the propositions that Congress may not

o    (1) force a state to legislate or regulate in a certain way; or

o    (2) require state executive-branch personnel to perform even ministerial functions.

Book Name

Constitutional Law : Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet.  ISBN:  978-0-7355-7719-0



o         Whether state sovereignty is violated by a federal scheme that requires enforcement officials to temporarily conduct background checks?  Yes.




o         Held that the provision that required chief law enforcement officials to perform background checks was unconstitutional


o         Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that determined that none of the Brady Act's (note following 18 U.S.C.S. 922) interim provisions were unconstitutional.


o         The Judgment was reversed; the interim provisions were unconstitutional.

o         The provisions violated dual sovereignty because they compelled states to administer a federal regulatory scheme. Additionally, the provisions violated separation of powers because the responsibility for administration of laws enacted by Congress belonged to the President, not chief law enforcement officers in 50 states




Key Phrases


Pl Printz (Sheriff)

Df Congress



o         Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act provisions require the Attorney General to establish a national system for instantly checking prospective handgun purchasers' backgrounds.

CLEO temporarily perform related task

o         Also it commanded the "chief law enforcement officer" (CLEO) of each local jurisdiction to conduct such checks and perform related tasks on an interim basis until the national system becomes operative.

CLEO, Printz, Challenged

o         Petitioners, the CLEOs for counties in Montana and Arizona, filed separate actions challenging the interim provisions' constitutionality.

District Count - Unconstitutional

o         In each case, the District Court held that the background-check provision was unconstitutional, but concluded that it was severable from the remainder of the Act, effectively leaving a voluntary background-check system in place.

Circuit - Reversed

o         The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding none of the interim provisions unconstitutional

Court Agreed with the sheriffs (Unconstitutional).

o         The power of the Federal Government would be augmented immeasurably if it were able to impress into its service--and at no cost to itself--the police officers of the 50 States.

o         The Brady Act effectively transfers this responsibility to thousands of CLEOs in the 50 States, who are left to implement the program without meaningful Presidential control.


Court Relying on New York

o         Concluded that the Brady Act was not a proper method of implementing a delegated power.

o         Congress cannot commandeer that State legislature and executive officials.


Court No policy involved

o         Nothing tells us what reason efforts mean.

o         An imprecise barrier against federal intrusion upon State authority is not likely to be an effective one.


Congress Argues Does not diminish accountability

o         Requiring state officers to perform discrete, ministerial tasks specified by Congress does not violate the principle of New York because it does not diminish the accountability of state or federal officials.


Court Congress would not have to raise taxes

o         State governments would absorb the financial burden of implementing a federal regulatory program.

o         Members of Congress can take credit for "solving" problems without having to ask their constituents to pay for the solutions with higher federal taxes.


Court States are put in the position of taking blame

o         The States put in the position of taking the blame for its burdensomeness and for its defects.


Court CLEO will be blamed for mistakes

o         The CLEO and not some federal official who stands between the gun purchaser and immediate possession of his gun.

o         The CLEO, not some federal official, who will be blamed for any error (even one in the designated federal database) that causes a purchaser to be mistakenly rejected.


Congress Argues Constitutionality should be determined by balancing

o         The Constitutionality should be determined by balancing the minimal and only temporary burden upon state officers.


Court Principle of State Sovereignty

o         Balancing" analysis is inappropriate. 

o         It is the very principle of separate state sovereignty that such a law offends.

o         No comparative assessment of the various interests can overcome that fundamental defect.


DISSENT [Justice Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer]

o         When Congress exercises the powers delegated to it by the Constitution, it may impose affirmative obligations on executive and judicial officers of state and local governments as well as ordinary citizens.

o         This conclusion 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.


History Lesson

o         Article of Confederation had power to issues commands to the several sovereign states, but had no authority over individuals.

o         Framers of the Constitution empowered the federal government by having authority to make demands on individual citizens.

o         Hamilton's meaning was unambiguous; the federal government was to have the power to demand that local officials implement national policy programs.


Justice Stevens Relying on Garcia.

o         Congress sometimes had required state officials to enforce nation law.

o         Senators are elected by citizens of the State.

o         It is unrealistic that Congress will ignore the sovereignty concerns of their constituents.


Justice Stevens In response to blame argument

o         Elected officials will make it clear to their constituents who the source of the unpopular action is from.


Justice Stevens In response to safeguards

o         Seems more likely to damage than to preserve the safeguards against tyranny provided by the existence of vital state government.








o         So New York v. us. and Printz seem to stand for the propositions that Congress may not

o    (1) force a state to legislate or regulate in a certain way; or

o    (2) require state executive-branch personnel to perform even ministerial functions.


Distinguished from Garcia situation:

o         How does the rationale of these cases fit in with the rationale of Garcia?

When federal government can enforce a law

o    Garcia seems to apply mainly to generally applicable federal lawmaking; that case holds that where Congress passes a generally applicable ~ (e.g., a minimum wage law that applies to all or nearly all businesses).


Where Tenth Amendment does not apply

o    The Tenth Amendment does not entitle a state's own operations to an exemption, merely because it is a state that is being regulated along with all the other private entities.


Federal Government may force the states to enact, compel, or direct

o    But where the federal government tries to force a state or local government to enact legislation or regulation, or tries to force state or local officials to perform particular governmental functions, this is not part of a generally-applicable federal scheme, and is instead directed specifically at the state's basic exercise of sovereignty: the state's right to carry out the business of government. The federal government may not use such coercion, NY v. us. and Printz say.


Class Notes