Printz v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Sheriff Printz's Office

DOCKET NO.: 95-1478
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 521 US 898 (1997)
ARGUED: Dec 03, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1997

David Dellinger - Argued the cause for the United States
Stephen P. Halbrook - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Walter E. Dellinger, III - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Bill) required "local chief law enforcement officers" (CLEOs) to perform background-checks on prospective handgun purchasers, until such time as the Attorney General establishes a federal system for this purpose. County sheriffs Jay Printz and Richard Mack, separately challenged the constitutionality of this interim provision of the Brady Bill on behalf of CLEOs in Montana and Arizona respectively. In both cases District Courts found the background-checks unconstitutional, but ruled that since this requirement was severable from the rest of the Brady Bill a voluntary background-check system could remain. On appeal from the Ninth Circuit's ruling that the interim background-check provisions were constitutional, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and consolidated the two cases deciding this one along with Mack v. United States.


Using the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I as justification, can Congress temporarily require state CLEOs to regulate handgun purchases by performing those duties called for by the Brady Bill's handgun applicant background-checks?

Media for Printz v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 03, 1996 in Printz v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 1997 in Printz v. United States

The Chief Justice is attending a judicial conference in the Fourth Circuit, so he will not be present today.Justice Scalia has an opinion to announce in Printz against United States and Mack against United States.

These cases are here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

At issue is the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act popularly known at the Brady Act.

The Brady Act requires the Attorney General to establish a national system under which gun dealers will electronically conduct instant background checks on prospective handgun purchasers.

The Act also contains certain interim provisions which requires state and local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers until the national system is in place.

Under this interim scheme which is what is at issue here, before a firearms dealer may sell a handgun, he must send to the “chief law enforcement officer” and -- and the acronym for that in the -- in the legislation is the CLEO, he must send to the CLEO for the area in which the purchaser lives, a form containing information about the purchase, the so-called Brady Form, and must then wait five days before completing the sale, unless he is notified by the CLEO that the sale would be unlawful -- that -- that the CLEO has no reason to believe the sale would be unlawful.

During this five-day window, the chief law enforcement officer is required to -- in the words of the statute, “make a reasonable effort” to determine whether the sale would be illegal as it would be if the buyer falls into one of several categories of purchasers prohibited from purchasing firearms such as convicted felons and illegal aliens.

The officer's investigation must at a minimum include research in whatever state and local record keeping systems are available and in the federal database designated by the Attorney General.

The Brady Act also imposes two related duties on state law enforcement officers.

If the officer determines that the sale would be unlawful, he must, upon request, provide the would-be purchaser a written statement of the reasons for the ineligibility determination.

If, on the other hand, the officer finds no reason to believe the sale would be unlawful, he must destroy his copy of the Brady Form and any other records of the sale he may have made.

The petitioners here are Jay Printz, the Sheriff of Ravalli County, Montana, and Richard Mack, the former sheriff and currently a Deputy Sheriff of Graham Country, Arizona.

Each of them filed suit claiming that the Brady Act is unconstitutional insofar as it requires them as state officers to conduct background checks and to perform the related duties I've just described.

The District Court in both cases agreed with the petitioners and concluded that the Brady Act's interim provisions are unconstitutional.

On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Courts and upheld the relevant portions of the Brady Act in their entirety.

In an -- in an opinion filed today with the Clerk, we conclude that the central obligation imposed on state law enforcement officers, the requirement that they perform background checks on prospective handgun purchasers is unconstitutional.

There is no provision in the constitution speaking directly to the question of whether Congress may compel state officers to enforce federal law, and so our opinion looks to three sources of guidance first, the historical understanding and practice, secondly, the structure of the constitution, and third, this court's prior jurisprudence.

First of all, the historical understanding in practice, our review of that reveals not a single example in the First Century of our nation's history of the federal law that require the state's executive officers to implement a federal regulatory program.

Congress not only fail to enact the single such provision, it seems to go -- have gone out of its way to avoid them.

One of the interesting enactments was passed on the day before Congress proposed the Bill of Rights to the States and it involved an interim provision similar to the interim provision here.

On September 23rd, 1789, the first Congress enacted a law aimed at obtaining state assistance of the most rudimentary and necessary sort for the enforcement of the new government's laws, namely, the holding of federal prisoners in state jails at federal expense since there were, of course, no federal jails.

Significantly, that law did not issue a command to the state's executive, but rather a recommendation to the state's legislatures.

Congress recommended -- this is reading from the statute, “recommended to the legislatures of the several States to pass laws, making it expressly the duty of the keepers of their jails, to receive and safe keep therein all prisoners committed under the authority of the United States.

Moreover, when Georgia refused to comply with that request, the response of Congress was a law authorizing the marshal, the federal marshal in any State that failed to comply with the recommendation to rent a temporary jail.

The acts of the first Congresses indicate, in our view, that they believed they could -- unquestionably indicate that they believe they could require state courts to perform functions appropriate to the judicial power.

But courts are different, the Supremacy Clause states that state judges will be bound by federal law and federal power to make use of state courts is implicit in the fact that the Constitution merely permits but does not require the establishment of federal courts inferior to this Court.

Moreover, Judges have traditionally applied the laws of other jurisdictions.

We also examined various passages of The Federalist papers which state the National Government will be able to “employ” and “make use” of state officers, and that state officers will be “rendered auxiliary” to the enforcement of federal law.

We conclude that the only sensible interpretation of these statements is that the National Government may use and employ state officers with the State's consent, and the state officers are auxiliary to the National Government in the sense that they must enact, enforce, and interpret state law in a manner consistent with federal law.

Turning to the structure of the Constitution, we find there is a controlling principle reflected throughout the document is the postulate that the States retain a residuary and invaluable sovereignty.