Supreme Court

NYSRPA & COVID-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is altering the legal landscape. Emergency orders in many states are facing mounting pressure from civil libertarians and interested litigants. One challenge went all the way to the Supreme Court, but was defused before the justices had to weigh in. There’s no doubt that the Supreme Court’s operations are affected by the virus; it’s already extended briefing deadlines and announced plans to hold arguments telephonically. I wonder if the Court’s jurisprudence might be affected too. Will or should the Court take into account what’s been happening across the country as it decides important constitutional questions in the cases already argued this Term? What affect, if any, might Covid play in the Court’s consideration of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association?

An Alternative Answer in NYSRPA

[This discussion from Joseph Blocher and Reva Siegel is cross-posted from Oral Argument 2.0]

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York

No. 18-280 – Argued December 2, 2019

At Issue

Whether a New York City rule banning the transportation of a licensed, locked, and unloaded handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits violates the Second Amendment, the Commerce Clause, or the constitutional right to travel.

Advocates

  • Paul D. Clement, for the petitioners
  • Jeffrey B. Wall, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
  • Richard P. Dearing, for the respondent

Background and Case Commentary

In New York Rifle & Pistol Association, Richard Dearing—arguing for the government—faced an unusual challenge: Defending the constitutionality of a gun regulation that had already been repealed and replaced by a state statute. That development almost certainly rendered the case moot, and indeed three-quarters of the oral argument focused on the question of mootness.

But some of the Justices also wanted to discuss the constitutionality of the repealed regulation and the scope of Heller’s protections outside the home—and related merits questions we address here. The repealed regulation would have effectively prevented residents of New York from transporting their weapons out of the city, for example to a shooting range or a second home. This was seemingly a unique and relatively recent rule—not the kind of “longstanding” restriction approved as “presumptively lawful” in Heller. Moreover, while the Second Circuit had, in a divided opinion, found that the regulation satisfied intermediate scrutiny, the City could offer little evidence for its effectiveness in preventing gun crime. These merits issues, lurking in the “background” of the case, have received less attention to date.

Dearing, who was making his first-ever Supreme Court oral argument (against veterans Paul Clement and Jeff Wall), did a superb job arguing that the case is moot. But the posture of the dispute made it difficult for Dearing to defend the merits of the now-repealed law or address the government’s compelling interest in regulating guns.

Justice Alito had an exchange with Dearing (at pp. 52-53 of the transcript) in which Dearing, in hindsight, might have more clearly and emphatically defended the government’s authority to adopt the now-repealed law.

The Justice asked “Mr. Dearing, are the – are people in New York less safe now as a result of the enactment of the new city and state laws than they were before?” Dearing responded, “We – we no, I don’t think so.” Justice Alito pressed the point: “Well, if they’re not less safe, then what possible justification could there have been for the old rule, which you have abandoned?” Dearing replied that the prior rule made it easier for law enforcement to verify whether a person transporting a gun in public had a license to do so.

But then the Justice asked another follow-up—the question we address below, whether “The Second Amendment permits the imposition of a restriction that has no public safety benefit”—and Dearing yielded the premise of the question. With respect, as our proposed answer highlights, we think that Dearing could have stood his ground and defended the state’s prerogative to enact a law that might produce a “public safety benefit”—even if those benefits cannot be empirically validated.

To be clear, Dearing was focused on addressing the case’s mootness, not defending its prerogative to adopt the now-repealed regulation, and as we have observed, given the posture of the case, rolling out a more expansive account of the state interest would have been hard to do at oral argument. (With the benefit of time and space, we do so in a separate blog post here.)

That said, it does seem critical to assert that government has compelling interests in regulating guns in ways that cannot always be validated empirically, both because government needs the discretion and flexibility to respond to local circumstances and emergency conditions and because government needs to regulate in ways that preserve public confidence and trust.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York on Oyezhttps://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-280

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Justice Alito (45:12): So you think the Second Amendment permits the imposition of a restriction that has no public safety benefit?

Reva Siegel and Joseph Blocher: Your honor, two quick points on the concept of “public safety benefit.” First, new forms of gun regulation—like new forms of gun technology—won’t come with a deep empirical record one way or the other. But that fact should not prevent government from trying to address a problem in new ways. We need the states and local governments as laboratories of experimentation attempting to fashion locally appropriate solutions to complex problems of gun violence. Heller doesn’t limit those laboratories to repeating only those experiments they have tried before, nor should the government have to face the impossible burden of proving that a new law will certainly save lives.

Second, even when government lacks data showing that a particular gun law saves lives, the law might still provide an important benefit. The public harms of gun violence reach far beyond crime and injury, and the government’s interest is correspondingly broad as well. This Court has repeatedly recognized—including in strict scrutiny First Amendment cases like Williams-Yulee—that the state has an important and even compelling interest in promoting the public’s confidence and sense of security in institutions like courts and schools. The Court should similarly recognize the importance of such interests in the Second Amendment context.

SCOTUS Gun Watch – Week of 3/23/20

The Court released five opinions today, including one per curiam. But no news yet on NYSRPA and no new cert grants in other Second Amendment cases. The Court’s activity level suggests that things aren’t slowing down at 1 First Street for the coronavirus. I suspect we’ll be hearing something on these cases soon, but that’s been my (as yet wrong) prediction for the last few months.

SCOTUS Gun Watch – Week of 3/16/20

With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, even the Supreme Court has been hit. It has announced postponement of the next oral argument sitting, suggesting we may see some delays. The Court says it will still hold its scheduled conference this Friday and will still release orders next Monday. We’ll see if any news on gun cases comes out of the high court while we await a (hopeful) return to normalcy. In the meantime, no new updates on the Court’s gun docket, though one case I highlighted last week may be a candidate for a future cert petition.

As readers know, this weekly post highlights cases at the Supreme Court, but I also want to take an opportunity to highlight two resources I use to help keep track of the lower court litigation over firearm rights: the Gun Case Tracker by an extremely knowledgeable gun-rights advocate I know only as Rob (who tweets at @2Aupdates) and the Second Amendment Courtwatch by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Both resources provide very helpful information and updates about the status of important lower court challenges.

SCOTUS Gun Watch – Week of 3/9/20

After Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to express his dissatisfaction with the lower court ruling upholding the recent bump-stock ban, we’ve seen little additional movement this week. No new petitions, by my count, and no action on NYSRPA or the other pending petitions. Some quarters suggest that a longer wait for NYSRPA could indicate greater likelihood of a merits ruling, but it’s hard to say what’s causing the delay at this point. I still have to imagine the Chief is not eager to jump into another controversial issue right before the election if he can avoid it. And here there’s plenty of other gun cases—as show below—that are not at risk of generating mootness concerns to hear next Term.

Weighing Benefits and Burdens for Abortion and Guns Rights

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in June Medical v. Gee. I’ve written before about some of the parallels I’ve perceived in the debates over reproductive rights and firearm rights, and this case raises some new ones for me. As Amy Howe wrote for SCOTUSBlog, the questioning at oral argument focused on whether the law provided any benefits and what burdens it imposed. Might there be some clues in these arguments for how the justices are likely to approach an issue with a much different political valence?

The Second Amendment Doctrine of Dissent

Dissents have a key role to play in law. They allow judges or justices to articulate a view of how the law should be and serve as a signal to scholars, practitioners, and future generations. One thinks, for example, of Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States, which is often viewed as a vehicle for launching the modern understanding of the First Amendment. In the Second Amendment, doctrine has also been formed by the notion of dissent.