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New doubts on Second Amendment rights

Raising significant new questions about how much protection the Constitution’s Second Amendment actually gives to gun owners, the Supreme Court on Monday left intact a local ordinance that restricts access to guns even within one’s own home.   The denial of review drew a fervent dissent from two Justices, who argued that the Court is narrowing the amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms.”

The Court acted on the gun case while granting review of three more cases for decisions in its next Term, including a new test case of major significance on the right of a group of individuals to band together to file a joint lawsuit seeking a common remedy — “class actions” for consumers and workers and “collective actions” for workers.

The refusal to review the case of Jackson v. City and County of San Francisco was the latest in a string of such orders, declining to clarify the personal right to have a gun, first established seven years ago and extended nationwide five years ago, but not explained further in the years since.  Once again, as is its custom, the Court did not explain why it was choosing to remain on the sidelines.

In the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court had ruled that the right created by the Second Amendment included a right to have a gun for one’s own use in self-defense, at least within the home, and with such a weapon in a condition allowing it to be quickly used.  That is the right that the Court said applied all across the country, in the 2010 decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago.   But McDonald marked the last time the Court had spoken on the amendment’ s reach.

Much of the uncertainty that has spread to courts across the country has involved the core question whether the personal right extends anywhere beyond the home.  That has been the issue that the Justices have most often declined to sort out.  The San Francisco case, however, sought to bring the Court back inside the home, to determine how far government could go to regulate access to a weapon there.

Under the city-county ordinance at issue, a handgun in the home could be carried on the body of the person, but otherwise had to be stored in a locked container or else disabled with a trigger lock.  The right to carry a handgun within the home was restricted to those over the age of eighteen.

Lower federal courts had upheld those restrictions, despite gun-owners’ claims that the ordinance directly contradicted the access that the Court supposedly had assured in the Heller decision.  The main rationale for upholding the ordinance was the need to prevent gun-related accidents within the home.

Six San Franciscans who own guns, and want easy access to them in their homes, asked the Supreme Court to strike down the local law.  Their plea argued that the lower courts’ rulings were “perhaps the most direct repudiation of this Court’s holding in Heller since the decision was handed down.”

That was the plea that the Court chose to bypass, over a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas that was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the majority opinion in the Heller case.  The rulings upholding the San Francisco ordinance are “in serious tension with Heller,” the dissenters argued.   The Court should have granted review, they contended, “to reiterate that courts may not engage in . . . judicial assessment as to the severity of the burden imposed on core Second Amendment rights.”

Among the three cases granted review on Monday, perhaps the most significant was Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, in which the pork-processing company is challenging a $2.8 million money damages verdict awarded to a class of current and former hourly workers at Tyson’s plant in Storm Lake, Iowa.

The cases raises two questions applying both to class-action claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 and collective-action claims under federal wage-and-hour law.  First is whether damages in such a case may be calculated based upon a mere sampling of evidence from a small segment of the class, and the second is whether members of the group can collect any damages payments if they were not personally injured by the action the group is challenging.

In agreeing to hear Tyson’s case, the Court took no action on a pair of petitions raising similar issues, by the huge retail chain, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.  Those challenges presumably will be held on the Court’s docket awaiting the decision in the Tyson Foods case.

In the other two newly granted cases, the Court will be deciding whether a federal judge acts unconstitutionally in ordering a person facing a criminal charge and potential forfeiture of assets from using any funds not obtained from the crime to pay for a defense lawyer (Luis v. United States), and will clarify the standard for summoning a special three-judge U.S. District Court to hear a test case on redistricting — in this case, a new arrangement of election districts for Maryland’s members in the U.S. House of Representatives (Shapiro v. Mack).

The Court denied review in a number of significant cases, including tests of these questions:

** In a new case on the federal Affordable Care Act. whether Congress acted unconstitutionally in requiring states to continue to provide, through 2019, subsidized medical care for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds from low-income families. That was the issue raised by Maine officials in Mayhew v. Burwell.

** Whether judges in federal bankruptcy courts have only limited power to regulate state government assets or programs, while judging the validity of a debtor’s reorganization under Chapter 11.  The case was Michigan Workmen’s Compensation Agency v. Ace American Insurance Co.

** Whether an agreement between two parties to send any dispute they have to arbitration may be enforced even if it does not clearly show that the right to sue is being surrendered.  The case was U.S. Legal Services Group v. Atalese.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New doubts on Second Amendment rights, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 8, 2015, 12:24 PM),