In 1788, James Madison offered a blueprint for stopping “unwarrantable measures” enacted by the federal government. In Federalist #46, the “Father of the Constitution” advised a refusal to cooperate with officers of the union.” He said even in a single state, this strategy would create “difficulties” and “impediments.” And if several states refused to cooperate at the same time, it would “present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”
Interestingly, Madison didn’t limit this strategy to “unwarrantable” or unconstitutional federal actions. He said states should refuse to cooperate with the general government even to stop “a warrantable measure” that happened to be unpopular.
Fifty-four years later, the Supreme Court codified Madison’s strategy into law. In the first of four cases that form the foundation of a legal principle known as the anti-commandeering doctrine, Justice Joseph Story argued that the state and federal government operate in separate spheres. The states cannot obstruct legitimate federal actions, but neither can the federal government force states to do its bidding.
Specifically, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Story held that the federal government could not force states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. He said that it was a federal law, and the federal government ultimately had to enforce it
“The fundamental principle applicable to all cases of this sort, would seem to be, that where the end is required, the means are given; and where the duty is enjoined, the ability to perform it is contemplated to exist on the part of the functionaries to whom it is entrusted. The clause is found in the national Constitution, and not in that of any state. It does not point out any state functionaries, or any state action to carry its provisions into effect. The states cannot, therefore, be compelled to enforce them; and it might well be deemed an unconstitutional exercise of the power of interpretation, to insist that the states are bound to provide means to carry into effect the duties of the national government, nowhere delegated or instrusted to them by the Constitution.” [Emphasis added]
Over the years, the Supreme Court built on the precedent in Prigg and fully developed the anti-commandeering doctrine. The Court has consistently held that the federal government cannot force states to implement federal programs or enforce federal laws – regardless of their constitutionality. The 1996 case Printz v. U.S. serves as the cornerstone of this doctrine.
“We held in New York that Congress cannot compel the States to enact or enforce a federal regulatory program. Today we hold that Congress cannot circumvent that prohibition by conscripting the States’ officers directly. The Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States’ officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program. It matters not whether policymaking is involved, and no case-by-case weighing of the burdens or benefits is necessary