Setting a precedent with important implications today, the Supreme Court’s decision from 1997 in Printz v. United States reaffirmed states’ rights and the Constitution’s anti-commandeering provisions.
In the 5-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion which struck down part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in violation of the 10th Amendment.
Specifically, the Brady Act’s requirement for local sheriffs to perform gun background checks conflicted with the concept of “anti-commandeering” which had been set out as an important component of federalism in an earlier case, New York v. United States (1992).
The 10th Amendment says that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In New York v. United States, Justice O’Connor wrote that a federal waste-management law “would ‘commandeer’ state governments into the service of federal regulatory purposes, and would for this reason be inconsistent with the Constitution’s division of authority between federal and state governments.”
In Printz, Justice Scalia reinforced that concept. “The Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States’ officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program,” Scalia said. “Such commands are fundamentally incompatible with our constitutional system of dual sovereignty.”
This federalism argument has been at the heart of recent controversies involving legalized sports betting, sanctuary cities, and the state regulation of marijuana laws.
Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in the recent Murphy v. NCAA case emphatically restated the ideas expressed by O’Connor and Scalia as the Court settled a controversy about New Jersey’s desires to start legal sports betting despite a federal law that prohibited such actions.
“The anti-commandeering doctrine may sound arcane, but it is simply the expression of a fundamental structural decision incorporated into the Constitution, i.e., the decision to withhold from Congress the power to issue orders directly to the States,” Alito wrote. “Conspicuously absent from the list of powers given to Congress is the power to issue direct orders to the governments of the States. The anti-commandeering doctrine simply represents the recognition of this limit on congressional authority,” he added.