New York v. United States

Following is the case brief for New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992)

Case Summary of New York v. United States:

  • The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 included three incentive provisions to encourage states to address the shortage of waste disposal sites.
  • New York State, and two counties, sought a declaratory judgment stating that the Act’s three incentive provisions were inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment and the Guarantee Clause of the Constitution.
  • The District Court dismissed the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
  • The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part.  It held that the first two provisions of the Act were proper uses of Congress’s Spending and Commerce powers. However, the third provision (which forced states to take possession of the waste within its borders) violated state sovereignty and, thus, the Tenth Amendment.

New York v. United States Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 to address the increasing shortage of disposal sites for low-level radioactive waste in 31 states.  The Act essentially provides incentives so states will dispose of waste generated within their borders. Three such incentives were at issue in this matter.

  1.  Monetary incentives:  Congress conditioned grants to states that achieved certain milestones.
  2.  Access incentives:  Access to disposal sites would be gradually limited if a state wishing to dispose of waste did not meet federal deadlines.
  3.  Take-title provision:  A state that fails to dispose of all internally-created waste must take ownership of that waste and be held liable to the waste generator if the state does not take timely possession.

The State of New York, which generates a large amount of the nation’s low-level radioactive waste, believed that the Act violated, among other things, the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Procedural History:

The State of New York, and two of its counties, sued in Federal District Court for a judgment declaring that the Act was inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment and the Guarantee Clause in Article IV of the Constitution.  The District Court dismissed the complaint.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Issue and Holding:

Do any of the three incentive provisions of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 violate the Constitution?  Yes.  The take-title provision is inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment. 


The judgment of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

While the Constitution gives Congress substantial power to encourage the states to enforce federal law with incentives, it does not give the power to compel states to enforce federal law.


  • The difference between federal encouragement and coercion.

Congress cannot simply compel a state to enforce a federal regulatory program.  It would be unfair to do so because state officials would bear the brunt of public disapproval for something the federal government coerced the state to do.  Congress can, however, use the Spending Power and the Commerce Clause to encourage states to make certain policy choices consistent with a federal program.

  • The take-title provision is an unconstitutional intrusion into state sovereignty.

In this case, the first two incentives (monetary and access incentives) are proper applications of Congress’s Spending and Commerce powers.  The take-title provision, however, runs afoul of the boundary between federal and state power.  The provision moves from encouragement to coercion.  The only “choice” states have with the take-title provision is either to take ownership of waste, or regulate in accordance with federal direction.  It, therefore, encroaches on state sovereignty in violation of the Tenth Amendment.

  • Severability and the Guarantee Clause.

Having found the take-title provision unconstitutional, the Court determined that the provision is severable from the rest of the Act.  Further, the Court declined to make a determination with regard to New York’s claim under the Guarantee Clause.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion (White):

The Court mischaracterized the issue in this case by failing to note that the states invited federal intervention that resulted in the Act.  It also misanalyzed the issue it resolved, and neglected to appreciate the public policy implications of finding the take-title provision unconstitutional.  All three provisions should have been deemed constitutional.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion (Stevens):

The idea that Congress does not have the power to command the states to implement an Act of Congress is not correct.  The take-title provision is within Congress’s power to impose on the states.


New York v. United States centers on the notion of federalism.  The debate presented in this case shows the difficulty in finding the line where federal power spills over into an intrusion on state sovereignty.  Indeed, the extent to which this country is viewed as a group of sovereign states vs. one unified country continues to animate our legal discussion today.

Student Resources: