Printz v. United States
521 U.S. 898

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

PRINTZ, SHERIFF/CORONER, RAVALLI COUNTY, MONTANA v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 95-1478. Argued December 3, 1996-Decided June 27,1997*

Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act provisions require the Attorney General to establish a national system for instantly checking prospective handgun purchasers' backgrounds, note following 18 U. S. C. § 922, and command 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, § 922(s). Petitioners, the CLEOs for counties in Montana and Arizona, filed separate actions challenging the interim provisions' constitutionality. 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. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding none of the interim provisions unconstitutional.

Held:

1. The Brady Act's interim provision commanding CLEOs to conduct background checks, § 922(s)(2), is unconstitutional. Extinguished with it is the duty implicit in the background-check requirement that the CLEO accept completed handgun-applicant statements (Brady Forms) from firearms dealers, §§ 922(s)(I)(A)(i)(III) and (IV). Pp. 904-933.

(a) Because there is no constitutional text speaking to the precise question whether congressional action compelling state officers to execute federal laws is unconstitutional, the answer to the CLEOs' challenge must be sought in historical understanding and practice, in the Constitution's structure, and in this Court's jurisprudence. Pp. 904-905.

(b) Relevant constitutional practice tends to negate the existence of the congressional power asserted here, but is not conclusive. Enactments of the early Congresses seem to contain no evidence of an assumption that the Federal Government may command the States' executive power in the absence of a particularized constitutional authorization. The early enactments establish, at most, that the Constitution

*Together with No. 95-1503, Mack v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.


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was originally understood to permit imposition of an obligation on state judges to enforce federal prescriptions related to matters appropriate for the judicial power. The Government misplaces its reliance on portions of The Federalist suggesting that federal responsibilities could be imposed on state officers. None of these statements necessarily implies-what is the critical point here-that Congress could impose these responsibilities without the States' consent. They appear to rest on the natural assumption that the States would consent, see FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U. S. 742, 796, n. 35 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in judgment and dissenting in part). Finally, there is an absence of executivecommandeering federal statutes in the country's later history, at least until very recent years. Even assuming that newer laws represent an assertion of the congressional power challenged here, they are of such recent vintage that they are not probative of a constitutional tradition. Pp. 905-918.

(c) The Constitution's structure reveals a principle that controls these cases: the system of "dual sovereignty." See, e. g., Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U. S. 452, 457. Although the States surrendered many of their powers to the new Federal Government, they retained a residuary and inviolable sovereignty that is reflected throughout the Constitution's text. See, e. g., Lane County v. Oregon, 7 Wall. 71, 76. The Framers 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. The Federal Government's power would be augmented immeasurably and impermissibly if it were able to impress into its service-and at no cost to itself-the police officers of the 50 States. Pp. 918-922.

(d) Federal control of state officers would also have an effect upon the separation and equilibration of powers between the three branches of the Federal Government itself. The Brady Act effectively transfers the President's responsibility to administer the laws enacted by Congress, Art. II, §§ 2 and 3, to thousands of CLEOs in the 50 States, who are left to implement the program without meaningful Presidential control. The Federal Executive's unity would be shattered, and the power of the President would be subject to reduction, if Congress could simply require state officers to execute its laws. Pp. 922-923.

(e) Contrary to the contention of JUSTICE STEVENS' dissent, the Brady Act's direction of the actions of state executive officials is not constitutionally valid under Art. I, § 8, as a law "necessary and proper" to the execution of Congress's Commerce Clause power to regulate handgun sales. Where, as here, a law violates the state sovereignty principle, it is not a law "proper for carrying into Execution" delegated


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Full Text of Opinion

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Primary Holding

The federal government violated the Tenth Amendment by commandeering state and local officials to perform background checks on people buying guns.