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New York v. United States (1992)

Last Updated: 2006

In New York v. United States (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of the federal Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 for unconstitutionally interfering with powers reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment. Although the case received relatively little attention from journalists and constitutional scholars at the time it was handed down, it marked the beginning of a renewed interest in federalism by the Court.

Under the act, the federal government required states to pass legislation to address the problem of radioactive waste disposal. The states were required by the federal statute to enter into interstate compacts that would govern regional disposal, or states could go it alone and develop their own disposal facilities. In either event, states that failed to follow the statutory mandate would be required to “take title” (or ownership) and possession of all radioactive waste within the state, and to assume full liability for any damages or injuries caused by the waste. From 1985 to 1992, Congress approved a total of nine regional compacts covering 42 states. New York however, was not a party to any of those compacts.

The State of New York filed a lawsuit against the federal government claiming that the statute was an unconstitutional infringement on state sovereignty. In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled for New York. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that “[s]tates are not mere political subdivisions of the United States. State governments are neither regional offices nor administrative agencies of the Federal Government.” She concluded that “the Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program,” and that the Constitution forbids the federal government from “commandeering” the states to carry out federal radioactive waste policy in the manner prescribed by this statute. Joining O’Connor in the majority were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and David Souter. Justices Byron White, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens dissented.

Although the decision may have raised a few scholarly eyebrows, constitutional scholars and commentators did not immediately make much of the New York decision; this was despite the fact that it was one of the very few Supreme Court cases in nearly six decades to strike down a federal statute based on federalism principles. However, Supreme Court and constitutional scholars later recognized that New York marked the beginning of a judicial federalism revival under the Rehnquist Court in the 1990’s, during which the Court struck down a series of federal statutes under the commerce clause (e.g., U.S v. Lopez 1995), Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment (e.g., City of Boerne v. Flores 1995), and the Eleventh Amendment (e.g., Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida 1996). Additionally, the Court reaffirmed its “anticommandeering” interpretation of the Tenth Amendment under New York when it struck down provisions of the Brady Bill in Printz v. United States (1997).

SEE ALSO: Commerce ClausePrintz v. United StatesTaxing and Spending PowerTenth AmendmentUnited States v. Lopez


Richard A. Brisbin, “The Reconstitution of American Federalism?” Publius 28 (1998): 189–215; City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1995); New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992); J. Mitchell Pickerill and Cornell W. Clayton, “The Rehnquist Court and the Political Dynamics of Federalism,” Perspectives on Politics 2 (June 2004): 233–48; Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997); Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996); and United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).