New York v. United States (1992)

Key Facts—Congress had passed the Low-Level Radiation Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985, altering regulation of radioactive waste. This would compel the states to dispose of radioactive waste a specific way.


Issue—Can Congress compel the states to dispose of radioactive waste in the way that Congress would prefer them to?


Result—Law partially stricken.

Reasoning—Congress has great power to coax the states into doing its bidding, but it cannot compel the states to dispose of radioactive waste in some specific way. Instead, it could, for example, force the private generators and disposers of waste to do what they want. However, Congress cannot use the states as tools to achieve their ends.

So, where do we put this?
So, where do we put this?

Printz v. United States

Key Facts—The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act commanded state and local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers and perform some related tasks.

Issue—Can Congress compel state and local law enforcement to perform specific tasks pursuant to federal regulations?


Result—Law partially stricken.

Reasoning—Historically, when Congress needed state assistance in enforcing a federal law, it never attempted to mandate compliance; instead, it requested support. If the states did not comply, Congress worked around the resultant logistical issues. Using the states as instruments of Congress is forbidden, because they have their own sovereignty. The Brady Act would transfer the Executive responsibility for execution of the laws to local authorities, and it is therefore unacceptable.

United States v. Morrison

Key Facts—A rape victim attempted to sue her alleged rapists and Virginia Tech under the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994, a law intended to provide a federal civil remedy for gender-based violence cases.

Procedural History—District Court held that Congress lacked the authority to enact this law. Court of Appeals reversed. Court of Appeals reheard the case en banc and reversed the reversal. Supreme Court decided to settle the matter.

Issue—Can Congress create a civil remedy for cases of gender-based violence using their Commerce Clause power?


Result—Original ruling essentially upheld; law partially stricken.

Reasoning—As in US v. Lopez, this law is only very tangentially related to commerce. Also, the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment, which formed an alternative possible justification for the law, are inapplicable here, because they cannot be used to constrain private individuals.

Morrison case

On the Impact of a Talk by Richard Ross

Richard Ross, a recent visitor to the Levin School of law, had much to say on the state of juvenile justice (or injustice, as the case may be). His words were thought provoking, but his pictures were an order of magnitude more striking. Below, find a link to his book, which seems likely to have the same emotional effect as his presentation.

The sense of moral wrong that the reality of imprisoned children can inspire is staggering. By the end of Mr. Ross’s presentation, I was hoping for solutions to correct what seemed a clear and objective system of injustice.

I suspect that the idea of an objective right and wrong is close to the hearts of most people outside of the legal profession. Of course, when I think about the popular image of lawyers, it is not that of a group of people crusading against clear injustices.

Rather, if pop culture is any indication, the public expects us to defend mainly corporations and guilty criminals, either working in an actively immoral or amoral way or at least ignoring the larger moral picture and becoming obsessed with the details and necessities of victory.

Yet when I thought about the idea of children in solitary confinement and restraints, I felt this was the sort of injustice that could not be easily ignored by anyone. Solitary confinement can be traumatic for stronger adult prisoners, and the thought of it being used on juveniles was heart-breaking.

Juvenile imprisonment itself is also a pretty disturbing thought; hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children have been judged as ‘bad’ by the justice system, many of them before they reach puberty. How can they possibly become good citizens when the world has effectively told them they are a burden on society?

Gradually, I realized there was an element of nuance that I was missing. That is the problem with allowing oneself to be swayed by emotionally based appeals, which are invariably unbalanced on one side of an issue.

After speaking with a friend who grew up poor, around many juveniles who ended up adjudicated delinquent, I feel I have developed a somewhat better-rounded point of view.

I still think solitary confinement of minors is categorically wrong, and it probably qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

However, when I look at juveniles in the justice system, I have to look at more than just their probably unfortunate backgrounds. Almost everyone who ends up doing cruel or immoral things in their adult life was mistreated or poor as a child; this doesn’t mean that they should be set free.

Based on my friend’s experience, most of the children who end up in juvenile delinquency facilities have a long track record of causing problems, fighting, and generally making it impossible for other people to learn.

This made me think about the other side of the juvenile detention issue. If you’re one of the children who has to go to school with those kids, just as poor as them maybe, but perhaps raised a little better, how are you supposed to learn?

When I read the stories on Richard Ross’s website, I am struck first by a strong sense of empathy for the children or teenagers in them, whose families are often violent or drug users, or both. Then I’m struck by the concern that someday, these juveniles will get out, and my younger sister, or my future children, will be walking the same streets as them.

It is important to think about these things. It is important to think about more than one side. I am still not entirely sure how relevant this visitor was to my course on Legal Writing, but it was certainly a thought-provoking presentation.

National Labor Relations Board v Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.

Key Facts– The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that Jones & Laughlin violated the National Labor Relations Act by discriminating against, coercing, and intimidating union member employees, mainly by firing some of them. Jones & Laughlin argued the Act was unconstitutional.

Issues– Is an act that regulates commerce in a blanket way constitutional? Does the commerce clause grant authority over labor activity?

Holding-Yes and yes.

Results– NLRB’s existence and actions upheld.

Reasoning– Industrial strife can have a serious effect on interstate commerce, and the intent of Congress’s actions on labor relations are intended to moderate or control this potentially deleterious effect. On the other hand, as noted by the dissent, this decision, suddenly interpreting Congress as being able to regulate anything that may impact commerce in some way, might enable Congress to do basically anything they want.


Jones & Laughlin
Jones & Laughlin

Gibbons v Ogden

Key Facts– Ogden was licensed by someone with a monopoly on steamboat operation in New York with the right to operate a ferry between New York City and New Jersey. When Gibbons opened a competing service with a federal license, Ogden sued for an injunction.

Procedural History– Ogden won in the New York state courts, but the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issues– What does “commerce,” which the federal government can regulate, constitute? Does this power of regulation have limitations?

Holding– Commerce power constitutes power to regulate anything involving commerce between or involving more than one states, or the United States as a whole. Essentially, it is unlimited.

Result– Reversed.

Reasoning– The Constitution gives Congress broad powers to regulate commerce that connects or involves more than one state, and Congress has been doing just that for years without any hint of objection from anyone, by this point.

gibbons v ogden

US v Comstock

Key Facts– A federal civil commitment statute gave the Department of Justice the authority to detain mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoners beyond what would normally be their release date. Multiple people fought this after being held under it, arguing the statute was unconstitutional.

Issue– Is indefinite detention by the federal government for mental illness and sexual misconduct constitutional?

Holding– Yes.

Result– The statute is upheld.

Reasoning– This is not a particularly new use of power by Congress, and even if it were, it is well within congressional authority. It accounts for states’ rights, and despite fears, the Court concludes it does not create a police state.

Indefinite Detention
Indefinite Detention
Of Prisoners
Of Prisoners