New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144; 112 S. Ct. 2408; 120 L. Ed. 2d 120 (1992)
Facts—In the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985, Congress provided for the disposal of radioactive wastes by enacting three provisions. First, it offered monetary incentives, by allowing states to add surcharges to states that build their own waste disposal sites. Second, it permitted states to deny access to other states that did not create such sites. Third, it provided that states that did not develop such sites would have to “take title” to their radioactive wastes.
Question—Are these federally mandated provisions of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendment Act of 1985 constitutional?
Decision—The provisions offering monetary incentives and denying access to noncomplying states were constitutional, but the “take title” provisions constituted an exercise of power not delegated to Congress.
Reasons—J. O’Connor (6–3). The American federal government is one of limited powers. The fact that congressional powers are enumerated is a “mirror image” of the fact that powers not delegated to Congress are reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment: “the Tenth Amendment confirms that the power of the Federal Government is subject to limits that may, in a given instance, reserve power to the States.” Existing constitutional provisions, including the commerce clause, the general welfare clause, the neces- sary and proper clause, and the supremacy clause, allow for the expansion of the role of the federal government. Such clauses do not allow Congress to “commandeer the legislative processes of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program.” To the contrary, the Framers of the Constitution devised a system where the national government would operate directly on individuals rather than on the states. Congress can use its spending power to “attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds.” It may also offer the states the option of regulating an activity or having it preempted by federal powers under the commerce clause. By contrast, when the federal government attempts to “compel” state action, “the accountability of both state and federal officials is diminished.” The provisions of the Waste Policy Amendments that offer incentives to the states are appropriate exercises of power under the spending clause. Similarly the provisions denying state access to waste sites is an appropriate exercise of congressional authority under the commerce clause. By contrast, the “take title” provision of the act “has crossed the line distinguishing encouragement from coercion.” Such “commandeering” of state officials is “inconsistent with the Constitution’s division of authority between federal and state governments.” O’Connor argued that “Where a federal interest is sufficiently strong to cause Congress to legislate, it must do so directly; it may not conscript state governments as its agents.” The states’ original consent to this regulatory scheme is irrelevant. Federalism was designed “for the protection of individuals” as well as states. It is important to recognize that “States are not mere political subdivisions of the United States. State governments are neither regional offices nor administrative agencies of the Federal Government.” Thus, “The Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program.”
J. White’s dissent argued that “the Court has mischaracterized the essential inquiry, misanalyzed the inquiry it has chosen to undertake, and undervalued the effect the seriousness of this public policy problem should have on the constitutionality of the take title provision.” White viewed the legislation as a model example of “cooperative federalism” in action and argued that states should be stopped from questioning the constitutionality of a provision they have previously utilized. White believed the anticommandeering provision is built from dicta in earlier cases, and cited an earlier case to say that any limitation designed to protect states as states “is one of process rather than one of result.” J. Stevens’s dissent likewise questioned the majority’s view that the federal government could not issue directives to state governments.