SCOTUS Rules On Gun Rights, Discrimination
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is the last day of the Supreme Court session and the last day of this Supreme Court. After nearly 35 years on the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens retires as the Senate Judiciary Committee opens hearings on his proposed replacement.
The court released several important decisions today, also, on the Second Amendment and Chicago, whether religious groups at public universities can exclude gays and lesbians and whether sovereign immunity protects the Vatican from a lawsuit in the sex abuse scandal.
If you have questions about these rulings or this year's Supreme Court session, our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
David Savage covers the Supreme Court for The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. We thank him for joining us from his office on what must be a very busy day.
Mr. DAVID SAVAGE (Supreme Court Correspondent, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: David, the Second Amendment case, Chicago, and one of its suburbs had longstanding, I think, 30-year bans on handguns and, well, the court had ruled just a couple of years ago in the city of Washington, D.C. that gun bans were prohibited by the Second Amendment.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. And this decision takes it one step more and says that the Second Amendment applies to cities and states. Now, you may have had the commonsensical view that Washington, D.C. is a city. But since it's considered a federal city and not a state, the court didn't actually decide on that case two years ago whether the Second Amendment really was a national right that affected cities and states, as well as the federal government, and that's really what was decided today.
So this decision really knocks away a barrier to gun owners and others who want to challenge gun restrictions nationwide - municipal laws, county laws, state laws and/or federal laws.
CONAN: And it didn't strike down the decision, per se. It sent it back to a lower court, but with the expectation, given what the court wrote today, that it will be struck down.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. I'm not sure why they did that. I guess as a matter of courtesy, they're going to send it back to the 7th Circuit in Chicago. But the decision is obvious. They've already said you can't have a - a city can't have a ban on handguns, and so the Chicago law will be struck down.
CONAN: Chicago's top attorney said today that the city is hurrying to rewrite its handgun rules after today's Supreme Court decision and says new regulations will go before the city council in an expedited manner.
So, well, one way or another, we're likely to see a lot of litigation on questions of what a city or a state can control and what it can't.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. That's absolutely right. I think everybody will tell you today that this means a lot of litigation around the country on gun restrictions. You get different opinions as to what the bottom line will be. Some people think it's a reasonable view to say the court's going to strike down total bans on handguns and nothing else.
A lot of gun rights advocates think this is a beginning of a lot of decisions that - for example, in California, I've heard this a lot, that the city has a law that says - the state has a law that says you can have a concealed weapon and carry it in public, for example, in your car, but you have to get a permit. But then it turns out that Los Angeles and San Francisco - this is what the challengers say - almost never give you a permit. So the NRA and other people want to go into federal court and challenge the restrictions on, you know, persons who want to get such permits.
CONAN: Because if you - if it's almost impossible to get one, that's the same as an outright ban.
Mr. SAVAGE: Correct.
CONAN: There's a caller in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick calling from Wilmington, North Carolina.
NICK (Caller): Yeah. My initial question - I was going to ask how we think the ban will affect the long guns, or the rifles. And then, as I was listening, it was interesting to hear the comment made about a permit. I live in North Carolina, and in North Carolina, you can get a permit to carry a gun concealed, and there are some requirements involved. You'd have to take a gun safety course and, of course, be fingerprinted, and it's fairly expensive and that type of thing. But the funny thing about that is on the other side of that coin, all a businessman has to do is put a sign on his door that says no handguns or no concealed weapons, and if you accidentally bring it in there, you're in great violation of the law. That was just a comment I wanted to make that I heard.
But I was curious the effect that this is going to have on rifles or long guns and shotguns and if that's been looked at yet. And also, magazine capacity. Is that going to be the next thing that's going to come along?
CONAN: A magazine how many rounds can be fitted into a magazine that would fit a rifle or for that matter a pistol.
CONAN: David Savage?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. Well, all I can say is that any type of restriction, seems to me, is subject to being challenged. Somebody can say, look, you the Supreme Court has said there's sort of a right to have a gun for self-defense. My city, my state, my county is restricting me. So, yes, they can be challenged. I should say, though, that the court reaffirmed today what they said two years ago, that reasonable regulations of firearms can stand.
And they just haven't told us, how do you know the difference between a reasonable regulation and one that, you know, infringes on the right of the gun owner?
CONAN: Nick, thanks very for the call. Appreciate it.
NICK: Thank you. Y'all have a great day.
And was this another 5-4 decision?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, that's a lucky guess, Neal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: All these have been 5-4 decisions and it's the same 5 and the same 4. The majority is Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito wrote the opinion.
CONAN: There is another case that came down today of considerable interest that refers to the Christian Legal Society. This was a group on a public university campus that wanted to exclude gays and lesbians, or people who were openly gay and lesbian.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, and this is a 5-4 decision tilting the other way tilting to the liberal side. The majority said that the University of California has a policy that if you want to be a registered student organization and get some student funds, you must have a policy of taking all comers, everyone who wants to come must be permitted to join your organization. And the Christian Legal Society said, well, you know, we're a Christian society and we've got certain strong views, one of them, which is that they do not want what they called unrepentant gays and lesbians. And that's how the lawsuit started.
And as you said, the university prevailed saying that, yes, the Supreme Court agreed, five of them, that it's okay to have a across-the-board policy that student clubs must be willing to accept all students who want to join.
CONAN: Ruth Bader Ginsburg in writing the majority opinion said: It bears emphasis that CLS seeks not parity with other organizations on campus, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, and the majority's view was that the First Amendment requires sort of equal treatment. You can't discriminate against a group because of its views. But she said that's not what's going on here. The university is not discriminating against the Christian Legal Society, it just wants them to abide by the same rule that applies to all other student groups.
CONAN: And in the dissent, Justice Alito, it seems like a very strong statement: Our proudest boast is of our free speech jurisprudences that we protect the freedom of expression, the thought that we hate. Today's decision rests on a very different principle. No freedom of expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country's institutions of higher learning.
Mr. SAVAGE: That does strike me as a little bit over the top because certainly anybody in the Christian Legal Society or any other group can say whatever they want, express any particular view. They could say something in the school newspaper to say, here's why we don't want, for example, gay and lesbian students. Here's why we think they don't fit in with they're certainly permitted to say that.
This is not a restriction on free speech of that sort. It's a restriction that says, if you want to be an official club and if you want to get student fees, which the clubs do, you just have to be open to everyone.
CONAN: It's not saying you can't have the group, you just can't have the imprimatur of the public university.
Mr. SAVAGE: And even with the restriction, you're still free to say whatever you want, you just have to as Ruth Ginsburg said, the Democratic student club on campus has to be willing to accept Republicans. If I think not many Republicans would want to join that club, not many gays and lesbians may want to join the Christian Legal Society, but your doors have to be open.
CONAN: And there's another decision I wanted to ask you about today, David, and that involves a suit against the Vatican that alleges it's been part of the conspiracy in moving around priests who were involved in the sex abuse scandal, that it is liable to a lawsuit as a conspiracy. And of course the Vatican, well, yes, it's the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, it's also a country.
Mr. SAVAGE: I'm less clear what to make of that, Neal. That was a pending appeal. The Holy See did raise this issue. They said under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, we're a foreign sovereign and you can't sue us. They've denied the appeal here. In other words, the Supreme Court's not going to review it. But I have a feeling there's a lot more for this case to play out.
And I think there's a good chance the Supreme Court might want to say, let's wait to see what happens in this suit, who actually gets who actually, you know, is found guilty in some way and whether there's any judgment against the Catholic Church. And then maybe later on down the road the Supreme Court would rule if there really is a judgment against the Catholic Church in Rome.
So for now, the court's passed on that and we're sort of left in it's unclear to me why they passed on it.
CONAN: They made no remark. They just said, we're not going to look at that now.
Mr. SAVAGE: Correct. They just denied an appeal at a relatively preliminary stage. I think that could that's the only explanation I can give is that they thought: We don't have to decide this now.
CONAN: We're talking with David Savage, who covers the Supreme Court for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune about the last day of this Supreme Court session and indeed the last day of this Supreme Court.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
And let's go next to Ash(ph). Ash with us from Buffalo.
ASH (Caller): Hi. And I have a question in regards to college campuses and the student organizations (unintelligible) allow all students to join. What about gender-based sports clubs like, for example, women's soccer, do they have to allow men to join their club now?
Mr. SAVAGE: I would guess the answer is no. Remember, this is a situation where the club is fighting the school's policy in federal court. I would be very surprised if any university would say, for example, our women's soccer team must allow men to play on the team. I think they view that as a different matter.
And the fact that the Supreme Court has just said there's no First Amendment right here wouldn't change the law or the status quo for sports clubs. So my guess is that it wouldn't affect that situation at all.
CONAN: Thanks, Ash.
ASH: But would it be considered discrimination based on gender?
Mr. SAVAGE: No, no, I don't the Supreme Court has had cases in the past where Title IX has been interpreted and they've never said that, you know, federal law or the Constitution requires, for example, women's sports teams to allow men to participate.
CONAN: Ash, thanks very much. Let's go to another question. This is John. John with us from Irene in South Dakota.
JOHN (Caller): The Vatican case is kind of interesting. If the Catholic Church in Rome is claiming sovereign immunity, then would everyone who works for the church in the United States then have to register as working for a foreign agent? The church has been, I think, reasonably active in politics. This would raise a whole - another barrier on church activities involving state.
CONAN: Well, the Papal Nuncio, for example, is the ambassador, the equivalent of the ambassador from the Holy See, and of course he is a member, representative of foreign government. Catholic priests in this country don't work for the Vatican. They work for the archdiocese of Buffalo or the archdiocese of South Dakota or, you know, various bishoprics at different institutions.
JOHN: That is the whole point of the Vaticans point of the suit. They're saying the priests work for Rome and therefore they are not liable priests and the bishops and the cardinals.
CONAN: Now, they say the priests work for Boston or whatever, not for the Vatican and therefore, the Vatican is not liable. And the suit, as I understand it, David, alleges that the Vatican or Vatican officials were part of the conspiracy of shifting priests around to various dioceses.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. And the suit did name a lot of different I think it named a Catholic archbishop in Chicago and it named a Holy See in Rome. And I think the, as I say, the Holy See wanted to establish early on in this case that you can't hand down a money judgment against the church in Rome. And the Supreme Court has passed on deciding that issue right now.
So I would still view that as sort of an open question and they'll wait to see what happens in this particular lawsuit.
CONAN: John, thanks very much.
Finally, David, was there any recognition at the court today of John Paul Stevens' final day?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, there absolutely was. It was sort of somber day because it began when John Roberts announced the sad news that Martin Ginsburg, Ruth Ginsburg's husband, had died yesterday, and he read a tribute to him. And then they read through all the opinions, that lasted an hour. And then John Roberts finished with a message that they had sent to John Stevens about how much they will miss him, what a friend he is. And Roberts spoke for a couple minutes and then said, now I turn to Justice Stevens for a rebuttal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: And Justice Stevens gave a few lines about how much he had honored to serve on the court for so many years, how many wonderful friends he had. He finished with this last line, is: If I have overstayed my welcome, it is because this is such a unique and wonderful job. And I thought it was a funny way of stating, Stevens is such a gentleman, he stayed nearly 35 years. It sort of ends with an apology for having possibly stayed too long.
And I think anybody who's watched the court and watched him knows he didn't stay too long. He's a remarkably sharp guy for 90 years old.
CONAN: And it is just as a matter of circumstance that on that very day his nominated replacement, Elena Kagan, begins her hearings or confirmation hearings before the Senate...
Mr. SAVAGE: That's right.
CONAN: Before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And, well, today, opening statements, questions expected to begin tomorrow, probably two days of questions for the nominee. And, well, it'll be interesting to see what she says, among other things, about her decisions about military recruiting when she was the head of Yale Law School, but that'll come up in the next few days there.
And of course, then there will be we'll be having a special on Wednesday of this week with excerpts from her testimony and hear examples from the questions that she gets from the senators. So, David Savage, we look forward to that.
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, thanks, Neal.
CONAN: David, always good to join us. David Savage is a Supreme Court correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and for the Los Angeles Times. And he joins us on a very busy day here in Washington from his office in Washington, D.C.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.