Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Oral Arguments on Heller... A mixed bag

I watched/listened to the oral arguments in DC vs. Heller this morning, and in my view (solely based on my knowledge of the justices, and the questions and arguments raised today; which is always iffy) we’re looking at a mixed bag.

Well, first the good news. It seems clear that the entirety of the court, even Souter, Breyer, and Ginsburg; agree that the second amendment protects a pre-existing individual right right to keep and bear arms.

The rest of the question gets a bit thornier however.

Clearly, the position of the courts is, and has always been; that all rights protected by the constitution are, under some circumstances, subject to regulation or restriction. I can for example say whatever I want in the privacy of my home, or make any criticism of the government that I want, but I cannot publish malicious lies about someone. Preventing libel, is a reasonable restriction on the first amendment, and is a compelling interest of the state.

Given this historical and legal basis, folks who say “What part of ‘Shall not be infringed’ don’t you understand” are just being silly (and often offensive, threatening, etc… etc…).

At this point, it seems clear that all of the justices believe that some regulation is reasonably allowed under the second amendment. The question then devolves down to “what is a reasonable restriction”… therein lies the rub.

DC presented the position that not only was there not an individual right; but that even if there were, that local legislatures had nearly unlimited power to regulate such rights (in fact, their lawyer suggest that they had plenary authority, a position flatly rejected by the court).

Walter Dellenger, who argued the case for DC, was absolutely DESTROYED by all the justices during questioning. Even the liberal justices tore him to pieces. It was clear he was disingenuous in his arguments, and presented no clear or coherent logic, justification, or defense of their positions. Even Ginsburg and Breyer, who nominally support strict regulation of firearms, seemed unswayed and unimpressed.

Paul Clement, the Solicitor general of the U.S., argued a “middle road” standard; presenting very strong arguments for the individual right position, which seemed to impress the justices. He was much weaker on his other contention however that reasonable restriction and a broad standard of review were necessary to protect the public interest in regulating firearms; specifically citing machine guns and “plastic guns designed to get through metal detectors” (a fantasy commonly used by gun banners to scare people into agreeing to bans in principle).

Alan Gura, the chief council for Heller, was very strong on presenting the individual rights position; but was very weak and unfocused in his arguments on the position of what constitutes reasonable regulation, and why. I think he was expecting most of the challenge to come from the “individual rights” argument, and not as much from the ‘reasonable regulation” argument. Though he was certainly prepared with facts and citations (his knowledge of 300+ year old statutes and precedent in both American and English common law was impressive), his arguments lacked coherent structure or flow.

For example, Justice Breyer repeatedly asked questions to the effect of “do the 80,000 deaths per year by handguns in the united states constitute a basis for reasonable regulation, or can they be considered in crafting such regulation?”. Were Gura prepared to argue the basis of reasonable regulation, his response should have been something along the lines of “We contend that crime rates are neither affected by, nor relevant to, the lawful possession and use of arms; and that regulation and restriction of the use of arms by law abiding citizens does not serve the compelling interest of the state in preserving public safety”. Instead he made vague arguments about reasonable standards of review etc… etc…

Dellenger in fact seized on this waffling about standards, to suggest during his rebuttal that if the court specified a strict standard of review (something they seemed inclined towards), that it would result in hundreds of judges around the country determining what was and was not protected by the second amendment, on an individual case by case basis.

So, as I said, a mixed bag.

Kennedy, Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas all clearly believe (both from questioning in this case, and in previous opinions and writing) in a strongly protected INDIVIDUAL right to self defense, and to keep and bear arms. It also seems clear that they support a strict standard of review for legislation; and a very limited scope for legitimate regulation.

Surprisingly, it also seems that Souter and Ginsburg agree that there is a right to self defense, AND that there should be a strict standard of review; however it seems they believe in a broader scope for legitimate regulation.

Stevens and Breyer, although they both seem to believe there IS an individual right, also seem to believe that very strong regulations or perhaps bans, are acceptable.

My prediction… that’s a tough one…

I think that we will see an absolute affirmation of the individual right to keep and bear arms, and that this right includes explicitly the right to self defense. In fact I think we may see some language to the effect of “for all lawful purposes, including hunting, sporting uses, and self defense”.

I also think we will see a strict standard for review, and application of that standard to the entire United States, including the states individually (under the 14th amendment and equal protection clause), rather than limiting the scope to D.C. or to the federal government only.

What I really have no prediction on, is what standard of “reasonable regulation” they might promote.

What seems clear, is that the entire court believes that US V. Miller (one of the few cases directly addressing the second amendment), and the standards it presents, are deficient. Scalia, Alito, Breyer, and Ginsburg all made comments to that effect. What that means for the future though… I think its anyones guess really.

I think we have a good shot at striking down all total bans on any gun, or even any class of gun, excepting perhaps machine guns and destructive devices. I believe they may explicitly approve of some licensing provisions provided that the licensing standard is non discriminatory. I believe that they would explicitly approve of regulations that restricted the rights of felons and minors.

I have no real read though on what their take is on the legitimacy of state and local regulations, such as trigger lock requirements, ammo bans, safe storage requirements, etc… I’m sure they will rule that state and local regulation are acceptable, but what standard of “reasonable regulation” will apply… who knows?

As it is though, under any possible construal of “reasonable regulation”; I would expect that the majority of the gun laws in California, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Hawaii; would be in whole or in part, struck down.

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