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And I'm Michele Norris.
It was an emotional day at the Supreme Court today, marked by impassioned opinions, fiery dissents, sadness and even a little humor. The justices wrapped up the term by handing down four opinions dealing with subjects as diverse as religion and patents.
But without a doubt, the decision that attracted the most attention centered on gun rights. By a five-to-four vote, the court ruled that Americans, no matter where they live, have the right to own a gun for self-defense.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Today'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 zone, it remained uncertain whether the individual right to bear arms would apply to limit state and local regulations.
Today, the court answered that question saying: Yes, it does. State and local gun laws may not unconstitutionally infringe an individual's right to keep and bear arms.
Justice Samuel Alito reiterated the caveat 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 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 guns.
But he added the Second Amendment's guarantee of gun ownership rights is no different than other rights guaranteed by the Constitution. And just because these rights make life more difficult for law enforcement is no justification for eliminating them.
In a rare oral dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer countered that there's 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, has 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.
Mr. PAUL CLEMENT (Lawyer, National Rifle Association): In fairness, I don't think they did.
TOTENBERG: New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Commissioner RAYMOND KELLY (New York Police Department): There's going to be litigation, no question about it, that is probably spurred by this decision, and it will all have to do with the reasonableness of existing regulations.
TOTENBERG: Paul Helmke, president of the Brady coalition to ban gun violence.
Mr. PAUL HELMKE (President, Brady Center): There's going to be a lot of feeling our way as to where you can draw the line. And just as historically, we've had longstanding restrictions on machineguns, someone's probably going to test that limit and then see what happens to semiautomatic assault weapons and 50-caliber sniper rifles if there's restrictions on those, like there are in California.
TOTENBERG: Herb Titus, counsel for the 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 the challenges to laws banning guns for those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors.
Mr. HERB TITUS (Counsel, Gun Owners of America): I believe that the prohibition against people who've been convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence will probably be the area of litigation down the road.
TOTENBERG: The NRA's lawyer, Paul Clement, suggests that gun rights advocates will now push for a repeal of some laws as well.
Mr. CLEMENT: 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.
TOTENBERG: New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who previously served as under secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement with jurisdiction over federal firearms, says that 80 to 90 percent of the guns confiscated by the NYPD 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.
Chaska Minnesota Police Chief Scott Knight is chairman of the Firearms Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He says his fellow police officers are increasingly worried about the arms race between cops and criminals.
Mr. SCOTT KNIGHT (Chief, Chaska Police Department; Chairman, Firearms Committee, International Association of Chiefs of Police): Sadly, this year, our officer deaths related to gunfire are up 32 percent from just last year.
And in 2009, we had five separate incidents where we lost 15 officers out of those five because they faced very lethal weapons, weapons that are typically deployed in a military scenario, not what we would hope to see and are found on our streets across the country. It's those kinds of things that concern us.
TOTENBERG: As big as the guns decision is, there were others today from the court, all five-to-four 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 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.
Today, 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 today, 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 a student fee fund 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 today, the Supreme Court, by a five-to-four 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 yesterday. She said the school's all-comers rule complied with the state's antidiscrimination 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's retiring.
Roberts noted that Stevens have 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.
Perched on the bench for the last time, he wore, as usual, his signature bowtie. Only 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.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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