SCOTUS WATCH: Court to Hear Gun Rights Case Democrats Threatened ‘Restructuring’ Over
Should the Supreme Court strike down New York City's handgun transportation law?
by Countable | 10.8.19
The Supreme Court’s fall sitting began in earnest yesterday and it announced the justices will hear oral arguments on Monday, December 2nd in a controversial gun rights case that a group of Democratic senators warned could lead to calls that Court be “restructured”.
What’s the case?
New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York concerns a challenge to New York City’s ban on owners transferring their licensed handguns that are locked and unloaded outside of the city limits (such as to a shooting range or weekend home). The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association believed those restrictions were a “draconian” infringement on their Second Amendment rights, in addition to interfering with their constitutional right to travel.
The restrictions were upheld by lower courts and the Supreme Court signaled in January that it would take up the case this year. That led to gun control advocates ― including the five Democratic senators who issued the warning about restructuring ― successfully lobbying New York City to change its regulations this spring. They hoped that doing so would render the case moot, thereby preventing the Court from potentially issuing a broad decision that finds a constitutional right to possess a gun outside the home for self-defense instead of narrowly striking it down.
The Supreme Court denied New York City’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds of mootness, although that will be subject to consideration at oral arguments on December 2nd.
What did the senators have to say?
The Democrats’ amicus brief was led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)) was joined by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). It concluded with a reference to a recent Quinnipiac poll, which found 51% of respondents believing the “Supreme Court should be restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics”:
“The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it. Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be “restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.” Particularly on the urgent issue of gun control, a nation desperately needs it to heal.”
In response, all 53 GOP senators authored an amicus brief of their own, which countered that they won’t tolerate political efforts to influence or restructure the Court:
“We take no position on the underlying Second Amendment question nor on the mootness issue currently before the Court. But judicial independence is not negotiable… We therefore ask that the Justices fulfill their oaths to “faithfully and impartially” follow the law. They should rule in this case only as the law dictates, without regard to the identities of the parties or the politics of the moment. They must not be cowed by the threats of opportunistic politicians. Our constitutional republic depends on an independent judiciary ruling impartially on the basis of what the law says… For our part, we promise this: While we remain Members of this body, the Democrats’ threat to “restructure” the Court is an empty one. We share Justice Ginsburg’s view that “nine seems to be a good number.” And it will remain that way as long was we are here.”
What are recent SCOTUS rulings on gun rights?
NY Rifle and Pistol Association v. New York is the most significant Second Amendment-related case the Court will have heard in a decade. Here’s a look back at the Court’s relatively recent rulings on the issue.
The most recent landmark gun rights decision issued by the Supreme Court came in 2008’s Heller v. District of Columbia, which held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a firearm for lawful purposes, such as self-defense. The case was related to Washington D.C.’s ban on handgun ownership and its requirement that rifles and shotguns be kept "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock" in the home — both of which were found to be unconstitutional.
The Heller decision also held that the right to gun ownership under the Second Amendment isn’t unlimited, meaning that it doesn’t permit individuals "to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose." The majority opinion, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts held that:
"The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."
Two subsequent rulings have further reinforced the Heller decision and framed the legal landscape of the Second Amendment debate:
- In McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment applies to states under the Constitution’s Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which clarified that the Heller ruling applies to states in the same way it applies to D.C. It was in response to a similar ban on handguns and regulations on rifles and shotguns imposed by the City of Chicago, which were found to be unconstitutional.
- In Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016), the court unanimously ruled that the Second Amendment extends to "all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding, and that this Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the States." The case involved the state of Massachusetts’ ban on stun guns, which was found to be unconstitutional.
What’s an amicus brief?
An amicus curaie (“friend of the court”) brief is a legal filing made by an individual or group to express their views on a case that they aren’t a direct party to. Politicians, political groups, and government agencies often use them to weigh in on a case that’s being adjudicated.
— Eric Revell
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