The U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its term Monday with an emotional day marked by impassioned opinions, fiery dissents, sadness and even a little humor. Without doubt, the decision that attracted the most interest centered on gun rights. By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live in the U.S.
Monday's gun decision expands a similar ruling two years ago that struck down a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. Because the nation's capital is a federal enclave, it had remained uncertain whether the individual right to bear arms would limit state and local gun regulations as well. On Monday, the court answered that question, saying yes, it does: State and local gun laws may not infringe an individual's legitimate right to keep and bear arms.
Justice Samuel Alito reiterated the caveats cited by the court two years ago, stressing that reasonable gun regulation is permissible, just as reasonable searches are permissible, and in some circumstances reasonable limits on speech. "We have made it clear," said Alito, that bans on handguns for felons and the mentally ill are permissible; so too are laws barring the carrying of handguns near schools, in government buildings and laws that impose "conditions ... on the commercial sale of arms." But, he added, the Second Amendment's guarantee of gun ownership rights is no different from other rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and just because they make life more difficult for law enforcement is no justification for eliminating those rights.
In a rare oral dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer countered that there is no reason to believe that the political process will not adequately protect gun rights. Courts, he contended, do not have the local and regional expertise to decide where and how to regulate guns, but legislatures do. The court majority, he charged, had "substituted" federal regulation by the courts for the traditional state and local regulation of guns that has existed since the founding of the republic.
Reaction to the decision was predictable — elation from gun-rights organizations, and concerned caution from law enforcement and gun-control groups.
But even the National Rifle Association's advocate, Paul Clement, conceded that the court had provided little guidance for the lower courts to use in evaluating which regulations are permissible and which are not. "In fairness, I don't think they did," Clement said.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly agreed, saying, "There's going to be litigation, no question about it, that is probably spurred by this decision. And it'll all have to do with the reasonableness of existing regulation."
Similarly, Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said there's going to be a lot of groping as to where to "draw the line." He expects court tests on assault-weapons bans, bans on armor-piercing bullets, bans on concealed carrying of guns and many other gun restrictions.
Glenn Ivey, chairman of the board of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, asked: "Will that apply to cars? Will that apply to yards? Will people be allowed to carry them on their person under this interpretation of the Second Amendment? How far will this go before it runs into the point where reasonable regulation is going to be permitted?"
Herb Titus, counsel for Gun Owners of America, agrees. He sees challenges, as well, to registration and licensing restrictions, to age restrictions for gun ownership, and to limits on the number of guns that can be bought at one time. But first in the pipeline of challenges, he says, will be challenges to laws banning guns for those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors.
Clement, the NRA's lawyer, suggests that gun-rights advocates will now push for repeal of some laws as well. "It may mean a lot of challenges in court. It also may mean that some city councils and state legislatures take a second look at the laws that they have on the books."
New York police Commissioner Kelly, who previously served as undersecretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, with jurisdiction over federal firearms, says 80 to 90 percent of the guns confiscated by the New York Police Department were bought out of state and transported into New York. So, a loosening of gun laws elsewhere has an impact too in places like New York, which has tough gun restrictions.
Police officers are increasingly worried about the arms race between cops and criminals, according to Chaska, Minn., police chief Scott Knight, chairman of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He notes that police officer gun deaths are up 32 percent this year.
"Weapons that are typically deployed in military scenario, not what we would hope to see on streets across the country," Knight said.
As big as the guns decision is, there were others on Monday from the court, all 5-4 decisions with major implications.
The first involved the law enacted by Congress in the wake of the Enron scandal and the collapse of other publicly traded companies.
Whereas auditors were self-regulated back then, the law subsequently enacted by Congress set up an independent board of top accounting specialists charged with monitoring outside audit firms.
Pro-business conservatives unhappy with the law challenged it as unconstitutional.
On Monday, a divided Supreme Court agreed. Chief Justice John Roberts said the independent board was too independent of the president. But the court left the board intact nonetheless, and declared that henceforth, its members could be fired at will by the Securities and Exchange Commission over policy disagreements with the president.
Finally on Monday, the court ruled on the rights of campus religious groups. The University of California Hastings College of Law, like many other schools, has what it calls an all-comers policy under which student groups subsidized by student fees have to admit any student who wishes to join. In 2004, the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society changed its bylaws to exclude gays and lesbians from membership. That meant the group was no longer entitled to a subsidy from the school. The group went to court, contending that the school's rule violated its constitutional right to freedom of association and speech. But Monday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, sided with the school.
The court's decision was announced by its author, an ashen-faced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose husband of 56 years died Sunday. She said the school's all-comers rule complied with the state's anti-discrimination law and ensured that no student would be forced to subsidize a group that would reject that student from membership.
Ginsburg's presence on the bench was just part of an emotional day in which Chief Justice Roberts spoke somberly about the life and death of her husband, Martin Ginsburg.
The announcement of opinions and dissents, including three spoken dissents or concurrences, took well over an hour. And at the end, it was time for the chief justice to observe that this was the last day on the bench for the 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring. Roberts noted that Stevens has served on the nation's highest court for 34 years, one-sixth of the time the court has been in existence. "We will miss your wisdom," said the chief justice, "your perceptive insights and vast life experience, your unaffected decency and resolute commitment to justice." Stevens then read a short letter of his own. "If I have overstayed my welcome, it is because this is such a unique and wonderful job," said Stevens. Perched on the bench for the last time, he wore, as usual, his signature bow tie. But on this occasion, the courtroom was dotted with similar ties, worn by lawyers and reporters, men and women alike — a final tribute to the justice who is stepping down.