Printz v. United States

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117 S.Ct. 2365 (1997), argued 3 Dec. 1996, decided 27 June 1997 by vote of 5 to 4; Scalia for the Court, O’Connor and Thomas concurring, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer in dissent.

In his attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, John Hinckley gravely wounded White House press secretary James Brady. After years of lobbying, Congress, relying on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, finally passed in 1993 the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required, among other things, a waiting period of five days to purchase a handgun and charged the chief local law enforcement officials, such as county sheriffs, to conduct background checks on persons seeking to purchase weapons. Under these provisions of the law approximately sixty-six hundred applications a month were rejected because the would-be purchasers fell into one of several proscribed categories, such as felons and drug users. Two sheriffs, Jay Printz of Ravalii County, Montana, and Richard Mack of Graham County, Arizona, challenged the law successfully in separate lower federal court lawsuits, arguing that the federal law had placed an undue burden on local law enforcement officials. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit subsequently heard the appeal from the federal government and upheld the law. Printz then appealed.

A bitterly divided Court agreed with Printz. Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion alluded to both the limits of the Commerce Clause and to the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which grants to the states powers that the Constitution does not give to the national government. Scalia's opinion, however, rested mostly on his and the majority's understanding of the federal structure of the nation in striking down the background-check provision of the law. Scalia insisted that the federal principle of dividing power between the states and the national government was one of the primary means by which the Constitution protected liberty. As a result, the federal government could no more order state officials to administer federal law than state officials could order federal officials to administer state law. Moreover, Scalia insisted that the principle was categorical, meaning that there could be no test that would balance state and federal interests in such a way as to advantage the federal government. Scalia's opinion was one of the most remarkable assertions by the Court in favor of state authority in the history of the nation.

The dissenters were diametrically opposed to the majority. Justice John Paul Stevens argued that when Congress acted within one of its express grants of authority, such as the commerce power, it was supreme and had to be obeyed. Indeed, Stevens and the other dissenters could not imagine the American nation in any other way. The legislation passed by Congress, he claimed, was as binding on the states as were laws passed by the legislatures of the states themselves. The federal government, he continued, was entirely within its authority to require local officials to help administer the background-check provisions of the Brady bill. Such enforcement action, Stevens concluded, imposed a minor burden on the states and not the massive incursion that Scalia described in his opinion.


Subjects: Law.

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