Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Is the Supreme Court Lying When It Purports To Place Limits on its Extreme Rulings? Third Circuit: Obviously, Yes

Today, the Third Circuit sitting en banc in Range v. Attorney General invalidated federal prohibitions on possession of firearms by convicted felons, at least in cases of non-violent offenders (Range had been convicted of food stamp fraud), but potentially in many other circumstances as well (via). This creates a circuit split with the Eighth Circuit's opinion last week in United States v. Jackson that I discussed here

The issue of felon disarmament under Bruen is interesting. At one level, it's always possible that any gun regulation might fall prey to Bruen's rigid history-or-bust methodology for determining constitutionality under the Second Amendment (though much here depends on necessarily subjective judgment regarding what counts as a proper historical analogy). But at another level, the felon prohibitions are distinct because Bruen (along with the other members of the Roberts trilogy on guns -- Heller and McDonald) were emphatic that these prohibitions should not be questioned under the Court's rulings. As Heller said: "The Court's opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons." This was reiterated in McDonald, and confirmed again in Justice Kavanaugh's Bruen concurrence.

How does the Third Circuit get around this seemingly very explicit language? By suggesting the Court cannot be trusted to mean what it says. 

The court in an opinion by Judge Hardiman analogized adhering to the Supreme Court's express declaration that these laws remained constitutional to how the Court talked about the application of means-end scrutiny in Heller. Heller suggested that the law in question in that case would be unconstitutional “[u]nder any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights.” Lower courts, Judge Hardiman continued, universally "overread that passing comment to require a two-step approach in Second Amendment cases, utilizing means-end scrutiny at the second step," an approach the Supreme Court ended up disavowing in Bruen. And so the Third Circuit says, in essence, it won't make the same mistake twice: it must be "careful not to overread" the language suggesting felon disarmament laws remain constitutional "as we and other circuits did with Heller’s statement that the District of Columbia firearm law would fail under any form of scrutiny."

In other words, the basic question is: can we trust the Supreme Court when it says, expressly, "our decisions should not be read to mean felon disarmament laws are unconstitutional"? Or was that a promise the Supreme Court never meant to keep? In fairness to the Third Circuit, given the choice between predicting (a) the Supreme Court will abide by its own expressly-stated doctrinal limits or (b) the Supreme Court will completely ignore its own promises the instant they seem to sanction gun control limits the Court dislikes, I'm hard-pressed to say that option b isn't the safer bet. But there is something discomforting about lower courts openly acknowledging that the best way to interpret the Supreme Court's Second Amendment jurisprudence is to assume that any limits the high court purported to place on Bruen's sweeping protections for guns everywhere-for-everyone-at-any-time are probably just lies.

As a sidenote, I'll also just say that I literally finished compiling my Con Law II course materials on the post-Bruen Second Amendment last night, and immediately had to revise them again to account for the Range decision. Again, spare a thought for the underappreciated constitutional law professor, the forgotten victims of the churn and chaos the Supreme Court has unleashed in our constitutional jurisprudence.

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