May 2000
Breakfast with a cop
who went to the Supreme Court

- by Alice Marie Beard

At a family-style breakfast in North Carolina, a bald, beefy man came in looking for a place to eat his sausage links and scrambled eggs. It was Jay Printz, the "Printz" half of the 1997 Supreme Court case Printz v. U.S., the case that says the federal government can't commandeer state or local executives to do the bidding of the federal government.

Never one to miss a chance to hear an interesting person's story, I called him over, poured him a cup of coffee, and cleared a place for him while he began to tell his story:

There was new federal legislation that said he and other local chief law enforcement officers would have to perform background checks and other tasks related to gun purchases. The chief cops thruout Montana were called to a meeting run by the feds, and the feds were there to tell the locals what the locals were going to do for the feds. Printz didn't want to comply. He didn't have the manpower or the money to do the extra work. He didn't like the feds telling him what to do. And he didn't like what he saw as the anti-2nd Amendment aspect of the federal legislation.

The one-time Marine who had joined the sheriff's force as a young man stood up during the meeting, looked at a federal marshall he knew and said, "This is not right. What are you going to do when I refuse to do this?" The feds didn't have an answer. Printz made his point by walking out of the room.

Before the meeting, other officers had said they agreed with Printz. He had believed one or two others would join him as he walked out. None did. He had a 140-mile drive back home, and all the way he wondered what he was going to do all alone. Like most honest cops, he was not rich, and he needed his pay check.

Ultimately, of course, attorneys whom Printz didn't have to pay came to his aid for their own cause. They got an injunction saying the law wouldn't be followed until it was decided whether it was constitutional, and the decision was that it was not constitutional. But I was impressed with one lone man who had the guts to stand up and say, "This is not right. I'm not going to do it." Jay Printz reminded me of Rosa Parks: Before Martin Luther King and the lawyers could do anything, one tired black seamstress had to say, "No. I'm not moving."

Not a Law Journal