Printz v. United States
521 U.S. 898 (1997)

  •  A provision of the Brady Act required chief law enforcement officers of State and local governments to perform handgun buyer background checks on an interim basis until the national background check system was developed.
  • Two sheriffs separately sued to stop the provision from being enforced.
    • Congress had argued that the law was constitutional based on the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I.
  • Both Trial Courts found that the provision in question was unconstitutional but could be severed from the rest of the Act.
    • The Courts found that the rest of the Act, which had voluntary standards for compliance was perfectly fine.
  • The Federal Appellate Court reversed the decisions, saying that none of the Act’s provisions were unconstitutional.  The sheriffs appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and found the provision unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court held that Congress cannot compel State Executive Branch officials to administer a Federal regulatory program.
      • Compare this case to New York v. United States (505 U.S. 144 (1992)), in which it was held that the Federal government could not constitutionally compel a State’s Legislative Branch.  Are they distinguishable?
    • The Court based their decision on the principle that State legislatures are not subject to Federal direction. The Court explained that while Congress may require the Federal government to regulate commerce directly, in this case by performing background-checks on applicants for handgun ownership, the Necessary and Proper Clause does not empower it to compel State officials to fulfill its Federal tasks for it, even temporarily.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that the Interstate Commerce Clause gave the Federal government the right to regulate handgun sales.  This could be coupled with the Necessary and Proper Clause, giving Congress the power to pass whatever laws are necessary and proper to carry out its previously enumerated power.
    • Interestingly, in the thousands of checks that were done, about 70% of the licenses were denied because the buyer was a convicted felon!