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Printz v. United States

Citation. 532 U.S. 989 (1997)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The petitioners, state and local chief law enforcement officers, object to being pressed into federal service and contend that congressional action compelling state officers to execute federal laws is unconstitutional.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress cannot compel the States to enact or enforce a federal regulatory program. Congress cannot circumvent that prohibition by conscripting the State’s officers directly.


Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to direct state law enforcement officers to participate in the administration of a federally enacted regulatory scheme. Regulated firearm dealers are required to forward Brady Forms not to a federal officer but to the CLEOs (state and local chief law enforcement officers), whose obligations to accept those forms is implicit in the duty imposed upon them to make reasonable efforts to determine whether the sales reflected in the forms are lawful. Petitioners contend that compelled enlistment of state executive officers for the administration of federal programs is unprecedented. The Government contends that the earliest Congresses enacted statutes that required the participation of state officials in the implementation of federal laws.


May Congress require state and local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers and to perform certain related checks?


No, as opposed to the Government’s contention, the early statutes imposing obligations on state courts imply a power of Congress to impress the state executive into its service. In fact, the numerousness of these statutes, contrasted with the lack of statutes imposing obligations on the State’s executive, suggests an assumed absence of power. The statute at issue attempts to conscript the State’s officers directly by circumventing compelling the States to enact or enforce a federal regulatory scheme. However, Congress may not issue directive requiring the States to address particular problems or command the States’ officers to administer or enforce a federal regulatory scheme.


Justice Stevens and Souter

Stevens: The Constitution grants the Congress the power to regulate commerce among the States. The additional grant of authority to Congress to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers is adequate to support the temporary enlistment of local police officers in the process of identifying persons who should not be entrusted with the possession of handguns.

Souter: The legislatures, courts, and magistrates of the respective members are incorporated into the operations of the national government, as far as its just and constitutional authority extends. This implies that the officers of the various branches of state governments may be employed in the performance of national functions.


Justice O’Connor

While the Court properly refrains from deciding whether other purely ministerial reporting requirements imposed by Congress on state on local authorities pursuant to its Commerce Clause powers are similarly invalid, the invalidated provisions at issue fail to adhere to the design and structure of our constitutional scheme.


The Constitution does not leave to speculation who is to administer the laws enacted by Congress. The President “shall take care that the Laws be faithfully executed personally and through officers whom he appoints.” The Brady Act effectively transfers this responsibility to CLEOs in the 50 states, who are left to implement the program without meaningful Presidential control. The insistence of the Framers upon unity in the federal executive – to insure both vigor and accountability – is well known. That unity would be shattered, and the power of the President would be subject to reduction, if Congress could act as effectively without the President as with him, by simply requiring state officers to execute its laws. Therefore, the Brady Act violates the Constitution.

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