This column originally appeared on “The Fox Forums” on June 4, 2009.
This week a federal appeals court held that the Second Amendment does not apply to state or city gun laws. Supporters of Judge Sonia Sotomayor incorrectly argue that this affirms her recent gun-control case. Now the NRA is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, and in doing so heats up the gun-rights issue to potentially become the dominant topic in Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings.
On June 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit handed down its decision in NRA v. Chicago. The city of Chicago has a ban on handguns almost as severe as the one invalidated by the Supreme Court last year in D.C. v. Heller. The National Rifle Association filed suit, seeking to have the Chicago gun ban struck down.
The Seventh Circuit held that the Second Amendment right to bear arms does not apply to state or city laws. All three judges on the panel hearing the case were appointed by Republican presidents. In January, Sotomayor was on a three-judge panel from the Second Circuit that similarly held that the Second Amendment affects only federal law, not state or local law. Supporters of Sotomayor are touting the Chicago ruling as proof that her Second Circuit case, Maloney v. Cuomo, was a mainstream opinion, arguing that the Seventh Circuit agrees with her.
But that’s not exactly correct. It’s true that both courts reached the same conclusion. It’s also fair to say that this is not a “pro-gun” opinion, so gun owners shouldn’t be thrilled with it. But it’s not an “anti-gun” ruling, either. The circuit court here released a nine-page analysis delving into this issue in an even-handed manner, written by one of the best-regarded appellate judges in the nation.
Originally, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. Then during the 1900s, the Supreme Court began applying (or “incorporating”) most of the Bill of Rights to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Before that time, the Supreme Court had held back in 1876, and again in 1886, that the Second Amendment does not apply to the states. But it never had an occasion to revisit the Second Amendment during the 1900s incorporation cases. It also did not need to do so last year in the Heller case because Washington, D.C. is a federal enclave, not a state, and is therefore directly controlled by the Bill of Rights.
As recently as 1997 the Supreme Court reiterated that even old precedents from the High Court bind all lower courts. The Seventh Circuit appropriately noted the Supreme Court’s instructions, and concluded that questions about whether the Second Amendment is incorporated, “are for the [Supreme Court’s] Justices rather than a court of appeals.” In other words, they recognized that after last year’s Heller case the Supreme Court appeared ready to incorporate the Second Amendment, but the Seventh Circuit considered their hands tied on the issue. They essentially have tossed the case up to the Supreme Court.
Contrast the Seventh Circuit’s opinion with Sotomayor’s Maloney case from the Second Circuit. This week the Seventh Circuit devoted nine pages to its analysis. The Ninth Circuit, which held in April that the Second Amendment is incorporated to the states, devoted 12 pages to its analysis.
Sotomayor’s Second Circuit devoted merely a single paragraph to the issue. The opinion does not even note that there has been a century of Supreme Court cases–15 cases, to be exact–incorporating various Bill of Rights provisions to the states. It simply embraced the 1886 Supreme Court case on the issue, said the Second Amendment does not apply whatsoever to the states, and then dropped the issue without further discussion.
Well-crafted judicial opinions lay out legal rules with clear reasoning to interpret the Constitution and provide guidance to other courts. The Second Circuit was the first appeals court after the Heller decision to consider whether the Second Amendment applies to the states. To routinely discard such an important question with a single paragraph is simply stunning.
Now this issue may become the single hottest issue in Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, because one of these cases–most likely NRA v. Chicago–will almost certainly be going to the Supreme Court in the next 12 months. The NRA petitioned on Wednesday for the Supreme Court to take the case, and various groups are already lining up to support the petition.
That means that whoever sits on the Court will decide this issue that is so important to millions of American voters. This already red-hot issue now becomes white-hot, as gun owners realize that the future of their Second Amendment rights is likely to get a second look from the nation’s highest court.