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New York v. United States

Citation. 505 U.S. 144, 112 S.Ct. 2408, 120 L.Ed.2d 120 (1992)
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Citation. 505 U.S. 144, 112 S.Ct. 2408, 120 L.Ed.2d 120 (1992)

Brief Fact Summary.

New York sought to comply with the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 by creating its own waste-disposal site, but the counties in which the site was proposed opposed its construction.  The counties and New York alleged that, by directing the States to regulate in a certain manner, Congress ran afoul of the Tenth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress may not “commandeer” State legislatures by forcing them to enforce federal regulations. “[E]ven where Congress has the authority under the Constitution to pass laws requiring or prohibiting certain acts, it lacks the power directly to compel the States to require or prohibit those acts,” because federal powers apply directly to individuals, not to States.


In the 1970s, States could dispose of their radioactive waste in only Nevada, Washington, and South Carolina.  Nevada, Washington, and South Carolina (the sited States), became either unwilling to accept more waste or ordered a reduction in the total waste they would accept.  With the prospect of there being potentially nowhere left to dispose of radioactive waste, Congress enacted the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985.  The Act provided that sited States would continue accepting waste from un-sited States for seven years.  But by 1992, the sited States would no longer be required to accept out-of-state waste.  After 1992, to dispose of their waste, un-sited States would need to form regional compacts with other States or create a waste-disposal facility within their State.

At issue here, the Act provided three incentives to ensure State compliance.  First, the Act provided for “monetary incentives,” where the sited States would place one quarter of their surcharges into an account.  States that complied with the Act would be repaid their surcharge payments, but those that did not would forfeit the money.  Second, the Act provided “access incentives.”  If a State failed to join a regional compact or create its own waste disposal site by the deadline, it would be charged higher fees from sited-States and could eventually be denied access to the site completely.  Finally, the Act provided a “take title” provision.  Under this provision, if a State failed to join a compact or create its own disposal site by the deadline, it would have to “take title to the waste” and be held “liable for all damages directly or indirectly incurred by [the waste].”

New York sought to comply with the Act by creating its own disposal site, but the counties in which the site was proposed opposed its construction.  The counties and New York alleged that, by directing the States to regulate in a certain manner, Congress ran afoul of the Tenth Amendment.


“[W]hether Congress may direct . . . the States to regulate in a particular field or a particular way.”


JUSTICE O’CONNOR holding: No.  Congress violates the Tenth Amendment when it uses “outright coercion” to force States to adopt federal regulations.  Thus, the monetary and access incentives were constitutional, but the “take title” provision was unduly coercive, so the Court severed it from the Act.


Justice White

Justice White’s dissent pointed to the irony in the Court’s decision.  The Court was supposedly protecting State sovereignty by rejecting a compromise made by the States themselves.  In his view, Congress was not forcing the States to regulate, but was “acting as arbiter among the States” over an important issue that affected them.  At the very least, New York should have been estopped from challenging the constitutionality of the Act after it benefited from the Act but never fulfilled its obligation to construct a waste-disposal facility.

Justice White then offered a solution for Congress to render the “take title” provision constitutional.  He reasoned that Congress could adopt the provision, or another like it, under its Spending or Commerce Clause powers.  Under the Spending Clause, Congress could “condition the payment of funds on the State’s willingness to take title if it has not already provided a waste disposal facility.”  This way, Congress could bypass the Tenth Amendment issue by fitting the provision within one of Congress’ enumerated powers.

Justice Stevens

Justice Stevens dissented, reasoning that the majority was simply incorrect in its opinion that the Federal Government can order individuals but not States to act.  He reasoned that Congress, in wartime, could choose to either “draft soldiers itself or command the States to supply their quotas of troops.”  If Congress is authorized to do something under the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment does not limit its power.


Justice O’Connor reasoned that States must “retain the ultimate decision as to whether or not the State will comply [with a federal scheme].”  If States do not retain this decision, Congress has exceeded its constitutional bounds by infringing upon State sovereignty.  If Congress wants a State to act in conformance with a federal scheme, it has two options.  First, Congress may use its spending power to “attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds,” so long as the conditions are rationally related to the spending’s purpose.  Second, if Congress is authorized to regulate the activity under the Commerce Clause, Congress may “offer States the choice of regulating that activity according to federal standards or having state law pre-empted by federal regulation.”  Allowing federal officeholders to order state legislatures to regulate in a certain manner would reduce political accountability.  Citizens upset with their State’s decision could hold only their state officials accountable, whereas the federal officials who were actually implementing the scheme would be insulated.

Focusing on the Act specifically, the majority reasoned that the “monetary incentives” were valid pursuant to Congress’ Commerce Clause and Spending Clause powers.  The “access incentives” were also valid, as this was an example of Congress offering States to choose between regulating in the federally prescribed manner or having state law preempted.  Further, the access incentives did not compel the States themselves to regulate, rather the incentive would impact the individual waste producers.

The “take title” provision, however, was unduly coercive and thus violated the Tenth Amendment.  The provision gave States a choice between two options that were both beyond Congress’ powers.  First, requiring States to “take title” to all privately produced radioactive waste would effectively act as a “compelled subsidy from state governments to radioactive waste producers.”  Second, by holding States liable for damages from privately produced waste, Congress was conscripting States into the federal scheme.  Therefore, the “take title” provision was “inconsistent with the Constitution’s division of authority between federal and state governments.”

The Government advanced several arguments for when Congress could order States to regulate, but the Court rejected each.  First, the Government argued that Congress could order States to regulate when there was a “sufficiently important” federal interest.  The Court rejected this, reasoning that Congress never has this power, regardless of the asserted interest.  When there is a paramount federal interest, Congress can either regulate directly or “preempt contrary state regulation.”  Second, the Government argued that the Constitution sometimes allows for Congress to force federal regulations onto the States, as evidenced by state courts enforcing federal statutes and federal courts’ authority to “order state officials to comply with federal law.”  In rejecting this argument, the Court reasoned that Congress may enact legislation that is effectively binding to state courts, but this power was granted to Congress by the Supremacy Clause.  Moreover, federal courts can order state officials to comply with federal law because federal courts have jurisdiction over “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution [and] Laws of the United States . . . .”  U.S. Const., Art. III, Sec. 2.  Finally, it was argued that, because New York officials had consented to the Act, there was no unconstitutional infringement upon State sovereignty.  The majority rejected this too, reasoning that when Congress goes beyond its constitutional bounds, State ratification will not cure the violation.

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