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Court agrees to rule on gun case

FINAL UPDATE 3:20 p.m.

After a hiatus of 68 years, the Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to rule on the meaning of the Second Amendment — the hotly contested part of the Constitution that guarantees “a right to keep and bear arms.” Not since 1939 has the Court heard a case directly testing the Amendment’s scope — and there is a debate about whether it actually decided anything in that earlier ruling. In a sense, the Court may well be writing on a clean slate if, in the end, it decides the ultimate question: does the Second Amendment guarantee an individual right to have a gun for private use, or does it only guarantee a collective right to have guns in an organized military force such as a state National Guard unit?

The city of Washington’s appeal (District of Columbia v. Heller, 07-290) seeking to revive its flat ban on private possession of handguns is expected to be heard in March — slightly more than a year after the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that the Second Amendment right is a personal one, at least to have a gun for self-defense in one’s own home. (The Court took no action on Tuesday on a conditional cross-petition, Parker, et al., v. District of Columbia, 07-335, an appeal by five District residents seeking to join in the case. The absence of any action may mean that the Court has decided not to hear that case. If that is so, it will be indicated in an order next Monday. The Court also may simply be holding the case until it decides the Heller case.)

The Justices chose to write out for themselves the constitutional question they will undertake to answer in Heller. Both sides had urged the Court to hear the city’s case, but they had disagreed over how to frame the Second Amendment issue.

Here is the way the Court phrased the granted issue:

“Whether the following provisions — D.C. Code secs. 7-2502.02(a)(4), 22-4504(a), and 7-2507.02 — violate the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes?”

The first listed section bars registration of pistols if not registered before Sept. 24, 1976; the second bars carrying an unlicensed pistol, and the third requires that any gun kept at home must be unloaded and disassembled or bound by a lock, such as one that prevents the trigger from operating.

The Court did not mention any other issues that it might address as questions of its jurisdiction to reach the ultimate question: did the one individual who was found to have a right to sue — Dick Anthony Heller, a D.C. resident — have a right to challenge all three of the sections of the local law cited in the Court’s order, and, is the District of Columbia, as a federal enclave, even covered by the Second Amendment. While neither of those issues is posed in the grant order, the Court may have to be satisfied that the answer to both is affirmative before it would move on to the substantive question about the scope of any right protected by the Amendment.

The D.C. Circuit ruled that the Amendment does apply to the District because of its federal status, subject to all provisions of the Constitution. At this point, therefore, it appears that the Court’s review may not reach a major question — does the Second Amendment also protect individual rights against state and local government gun control laws? But a ruling by the Court recognizing an individual right to have a gun almost surely would lead to new test cases on whether to extend the Amendment’s guarantee so that it applied to state and local laws, too. The Court last confronted that issue in Presser v. illinois, in 1886, finding that the Amendment was not binding on the states.

Some observers who read the Court’s order closely may suggest that the Court is already inclined toward an “individual rights” interpretation of the Second Amendment. That is because the order asks whether the three provisions of the D.C. gun control law violate “the Second Amendment rights of individuals.” But that phrasing may reveal very little about whether the Amendment embraces an individual right to have a gun for private use. Only individuals, of course, would be serving in the militia, and there is no doubt that the Second Amendment provides those individuals a right to have a gun for that type of service. The question the Court will be deciding is, if there are individuals who want to keep pistols for use at home, does the Second Amendment guarantee them that right. Just because the Second Amendment protects some individual right does not settle the nature of that right.

One of the interesting subsets of the question the Court will be confronting is whether the 1939 case of U.S. v. Miller is a precedent for what the Second Amendment means — individual or collective right. If that decision did find in favor of a collective right, the current Court would have to decide whether this was a binding precedent, or whether it should be overruled. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has already taken a stand on that question. At his nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said that “the Miller case sidestepped” the issue of whether the Amendment protected a collective or an individual right. He added: “An argument was made back in 1939 that this provides only a collective right, and the Court didn’t address that….So people try to read into the tea leaves about Miller and what would come out on this issue, but that’s still very much an open issue.”

The local law at issue in Heller has been discussed widely as a sweeping ban on private possession or use of handguns. But the Court order granting review took it a step further: the one section that will be at issue that goes beyond handguns is the provision that requires that any gun kept at home be unloaded and disassembled, or at least be locked. Thus, that provision also applies to rifles and shotguns kept at home, in terms of whether those weapons would remain “functional” in time of emergency if that provision were upheld. That part of the order appeared to widen the inquiry in a way that the local residents who challenged the law had wanted.

Additional grants on Tuesday:

The Court also granted review on Tuesday of the question of whether federal labor law bars a state from forbidding a company that receives state funds from using any of those funds to speak out on issues in bargaining with a labor union. That case is U.S. Chamber of Commerce, et al., v. Brown, et al. (06-939). The U.S. Solicitor General, asked by the government for its views on the case, urged that review be granted. At least 16 states have laws or are considering laws like the one in California at issue in the case.

The Court also said on Tuesday that it will hear an appeal by Alabama’s governor, Bob Riley, in a voting rights case — but will not necessarily decide the merits of the appeal. The Court postponed the question of its jurisdiction until its hearing on the case of Riley v. Kennedy, et al. (07-77). That means the Justices will, indeed, hear oral argument, but will focus part of that argument on whether the case is properly before them. The other side in the case contended in its response that the state officials waited too long to file their appeal, thus depriving the Court of jurisdiction.

The merits issue raised by the governor is whether rulings by state Supreme Courts on the meaning of state or local election law do bring about the kind of changes in voting rights that must first get federal clearance before going into effect — for those states and local jurisdictions that are covered by the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5.

These other two cases, like Heller, are likely to be scheduled for argument in the March sitting that begins on Mar. 17.