Breaking News

Tuesday’s actions, explained

Back from a brief holiday break, the Supreme Court on Tuesday was busy not only with high-profile hearings, especially on the use of race in college admissions, but with a series of orders adding new issues to its docket, and turning aside others.  The Court once again rebuffed California’s attempt to get more time and flexibility to avoid releasing thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons, and it continued to stay away from controversy over Second Amendment gun rights.  This post fills in some of the details of the Tuesday orders; a separate post analyzes the new global warming case the Justices will be hearing early next year.

Federal courts have been dealing for nearly a quarter-century with the severe impact on the health of California prison inmates by what has been called the “extreme” overcrowding conditions throughout the system.  The Supreme Court issued a major decision two years ago, basically upholding a lower federal court’s order to improve conditions by releasing thousands of inmates, if other measures would not work.

Last summer, the Court, over three Justices’ dissents, refused to interfere with the lower court order requiring the state to take further steps taken by the end of this year to reduce prison population to 137.5% of design capacity.  Even after that setback, state officials returned to the Court with a new appeal, complaining that the lower court had not paid attention to suggestions by the Supreme Court in 2011 that the state be given some leeway.

On Tuesday, that appeal came up for action in the Court.  In a one-sentence order, the Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case, and ordered the appeal dismissed.  (Brown v. Plata, docket 13-198.)

As the case was being briefed, lawyers for the inmates challenging prison conditions had told the Court that it lacked authority to decide the state’s new plea.  The right to appeal in a case like this one, the attorneys argued, is limited by federal law to challenging a lower court ruling that either had issued or denied a binding court order to take some action.  Here, that brief contended, the lower court had done neither but had only changed its prior orders — the kind of district court activity that can only be challenged in a federal appeals court, not directly in the Supreme Court.   The Justices accepted that argument, and ended the appeal — thus leaving it to state officials to try to pursue other alternatives to avoid the year-end prisoner release deadline.

The Court, as has been its pattern for the past three years, chose once more on Tuesday to deny review of a case seeking further clarification of how far the Second Amendment right to a gun extends.  Previously, the Court has said that the personal right to a gun exists for self-defense, but it said that only for protecting the safety of the home.

At least seven petitions for review have reached the Court, seeking further guidance on whether the Second Amendment right extends beyond the home, and in what circumstances a gun can be carried — in the open or concealed — in public places.  The latest of the petitions was from Maryland, Woollard v. Gallagher (13-42), asking the Court to use the Second Amendment to strike down a Maryland law that requires proof of a “good and substantial reason” before a state resident can get a permit to carry a gun in public.

The case involved Raymond Woollard, who lives outside of Baltimore and had previously had a gun permit, after a son-in-law had broken into his home and threatened him.  But state officials refused to renew Woollard’s permit for a second time, in 2009, concluding that he had not shown that he continued to face a genuine threat.   Woollard’s petition had the support of the National Rifle Association, and he was joined in the petition by an advocacy group, the Second Amendment Foundation.

Faring no better than others who had sought to get clarification on constitutional gun rights, Woollard’s petition was denied with no noted dissents from the order.  The Court’s next opportunity to take on a Second Amendment case appears likely to be when two petitions filed by the NRA are ready — one challenging a federal law that forbids gun dealers to sell handguns to minors, the other challenging several Texas laws that deny permits to carry a gun in public to anyone under the age of twenty-one.

The Court, while avoiding Second Amendment cases, has been willing to provide some guidance on the scope of gun control laws.  At the opening of this Term, it granted review of United States v. Castleman (12-1371) on the proof required to deny an individual access to a gun because of a prior conviction for domestic violence.  That case is likely to be heard in January.

On Tuesday, the Court agreed to review another case requiring an interpretation of a federal gun control law.  At issue in the case of Abramski v. United States (12-1493) is a federal law that makes it a crime to make a false statement about a gun sale.  That law is aimed at so-called “straw purchasers,” who buy a gun to give to someone who is barred by law from having a gun.

In this case, a Virginia man, Bruce James Abramski, Jr., has asked the Court to rule that this law is not violated if the buyer of the gun and the person for whom it actually was bought both have a legal right to have a gun.   The federal courts of appeals are split on that issue, and the Supreme Court presumably granted review to resolve the conflict.   The case is expected to be heard next year, perhaps in February.

Among the cases that the Court refused to review were Nokia Inc. v. International Trade Commission (12-1352), testing that federal agency’s power to block entry into the U.S. of products that are said to infringe on a U.S. patent (Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Stephen G. Breyer took no part in that order); Sony Computer Entertainment v. 1st Media (12-1086), on the power of federal judges to second-guess the validity of a patent for failure to make full disclosure to the government of all details of an invention — a case that the federal government, asked by the Court for its views, had suggested be denied; and Environmental Protection Agency v. Friends of the Everglades (13-10, along with two related cases, 13-6 and 13-23), on EPA’s right to appeal in a case involving its refusal to require a permit under the Clean Water Act for moving water from one waterway to another.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Tuesday’s actions, explained, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 16, 2013, 5:50 PM),