Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari today on the question of whether the Second Amendment should be incorporated against the states, a question left open by D.C. v. Heller.
The case is McDonald v. Chicago. The Seventh Circuit opinion, authored by Judge Easterbrook, is worth reading in full. It's not widely available and so is reproduced here:
Two municipalities in Illinois ban the possession of most handguns. After the Supreme Court held in District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 171 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2008), that the second amendment entitles people to keep handguns at home for self-protection, several suits were filed against Chicago and Oak Park. All were dismissed on the ground that Heller dealt with a law enacted under the authority of the national government, while Chicago and Oak Park are subordinate bodies of a state. The Supreme Court has rebuffed requests to apply the second amendment to the states. See United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 23 L. Ed. 588 (1876); Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 6 S. Ct. 580, 29 L. Ed. 615 (1886); Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535, 14 S. Ct. 874, 38 L. Ed. 812 (1894). The district judge thought that only the Supreme Court may change course. 617 F. Supp. 2d 752, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98134 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 4, 2008).
Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller rejected arguments that depended on the privileges and immunities clause of the fourteenth amendment. The Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873), holds that the privileges and immunities clause does not apply the Bill of Rights, en bloc, to the states. Plaintiffs respond in two ways: first they contend that Slaughter-House Cases was wrongly decided; second, recognizing that we must apply that decision even if we think it mistaken, plaintiffs contend that we may use the Court's "selective incorporation" approach to the second amendment. Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller did not consider that possibility, which had yet to be devised when those decisions were rendered. Plaintiffs ask us to follow Nordyke v. King, 563 F.3d 439 (9th Cir. 2009), which concluded that Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller may be bypassed as fossils. (Nordyke applied the second amendment to the states but held that local governments may exclude weapons from public buildings and parks.) Another court of appeals has concluded that Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller still control even though their reasoning is obsolete. Maloney v. Cuomo, 554 F.3d 56 (2d Cir. 2009). We agree with Maloney, which followed our own decision in Quilici v. Morton Grove, 695 F.2d 261 (7th Cir. 1982).
Repeatedly, in decisions that no one thinks fossilized, the Justices have directed trial and appellate judges to implement the Supreme Court's holdings even if the reasoning in later opinions has undermined their rationale. "If a precedent of this Court has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to this Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions." Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/American Express, Inc., 490 U.S. 477, 484, 109 S. Ct. 1917, 104 L. Ed. 2d 526 (1989). Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller have "direct application in [this] case". Plaintiffs say that a decision of the Supreme Court has "direct application" only if the opinion expressly considers the line of argument that has been offered to support a different approach. Yet few opinions address the ground that later opinions deem sufficient to reach a different result. If a court of appeals could disregard a decision of the Supreme Court by identifying, and accepting, one or another contention not expressly addressed by the Justices, the Court's decisions could be circumvented with ease. They would bind only judges too dim-witted to come up with a novel argument.
Anyone who doubts that Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller have "direct application in [this] case" need only read footnote 23 in Heller. It says that Presser and Miller "reaffirmed [Cruikshank's holding] that the Second Amendment applies only to the Federal Government." 128 S. Ct. at 2813 n.23. The Court did not say that Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller rejected a particular argument for applying the second amendment to the states. It said that they hold "that the Second Amendment applies only to the Federal Government." The Court added that "Cruikshank's continuing validity on incorporation" is "a question not presented by this case". Ibid. That does not license the inferior courts to go their own ways; it just notes that Cruikshank is open to reexamination by the Justices themselves when the time comes. If a court of appeals may strike off on its own, this not only undermines the uniformity of national law but also may compel the Justices to grant certiorari before they think the question ripe for decision.
State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 118 S. Ct. 275, 139 L. Ed. 2d 199 (1997), illustrates the proper relation between the Supreme Court and a court of appeals. After Albrecht v. Herald Co., 390 U.S. 145, 88 S. Ct. 869, 19 L. Ed. 2d 998 (1968), held that antitrust laws condemn all vertical maximum price fixing, other decisions (such as Continental T.V., Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., 433 U.S. 36, 97 S. Ct. 2549, 53 L. Ed. 2d 568 (1977)) demolished Albrecht's intellectual underpinning. Meanwhile new economic analysis showed that requiring dealers to charge no more than a prescribed maximum price could benefit consumers, a possibility that Albrecht had not considered. Thus by the time Khan arrived on appeal, Albrecht's rationale had been repudiated by the Justices, and new arguments that the Albrecht opinion did not mention strongly supported an outcome other than the one that Albrecht announced. Nonetheless, we concluded that only the Justices could inter Albrecht. See Khan v. State Oil Co., 93 F.3d 1358 (7th Cir. 1996). By plaintiffs' lights, we should have treated Albrecht as defunct and reached what we deemed a better decision. Instead we pointed out Albrecht's shortcomings while enforcing its holding. The Justices, who overruled Albrecht in a unanimous opinion, said that we had done exactly the right thing, "for it is this Court's prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents." 522 U.S. at 20. See also, e.g., Eberhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 12, 126 S. Ct. 403, 163 L. Ed. 2d 14 (2005).
What's more, the proper outcome of this case is not as straightforward as the outcome of Khan. Although the rationale of Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller is defunct, the Court has not telegraphed any plan to overrule Slaughter-House and apply all of the amendments to the states through the privileges and immunities clause, despite scholarly arguments that it should do this. See Akhil Reed Amar, America's Constitution: A Biography 390-92 (2005) (discussing how the second amendment relates to the privileges and immunities clause). The prevailing approach is one of "selective incorporation." Thus far neither the third nor the seventh amendment has been applied to the states--nor has the grand jury clause of the fifth amendment or the excessive bail clause of the eighth. How the second amendment will fare under the Court's selective (and subjective) approach to incorporation is hard to predict.
Nordyke asked whether the right to keep and bear arms is "deeply rooted in this nation's history and tradition." Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 720-21, 117 S. Ct. 2258, 117 S. Ct. 2302, 138 L. Ed. 2d 772 (1997). It gave an affirmative answer. Suppose the same question were asked about civil jury trials. That institution also has deep roots, yet the Supreme Court has not held that the states are bound by the seventh amendment. Meanwhile the Court's holding that double-jeopardy doctrine is not "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental," Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325, 58 S. Ct. 149, 82 L. Ed. 288 (1937) (concluding that it is enough for the state to use res judicata to block relitigation of acquittals), was overruled in an opinion that paid little heed to history. Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784, 89 S. Ct. 2056, 23 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1969). "Selective incorporation" thus cannot be reduced to a formula.
Plaintiffs' reliance on William Blackstone, 1 Commentaries on the Laws of England 123-24, for the proposition that the right to keep and bear arms is "deeply rooted" not only slights the fact that Blackstone was discussing the law of another nation but also overlooks the reality that Blackstone discussed arms-bearing as a political rather than a constitutional right. The United Kingdom does not have a constitution that prevents Parliament and the Queen from matching laws to current social and economic circumstances, as the people and their representatives understand them. It is dangerous to rely on Blackstone (or for that matter modern European laws banning handguns) to show the meaning of a constitutional amendment that this nation adopted in 1868. See Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Condorcet and the Constitution, 59 Stan. L. Rev. 1281 (2007). Blackstone also thought determinate criminal sentences (e.g., 25 years, neither more nor less, for robbing a post office) a vital guarantee of liberty. 4 Commentaries 371-72. That's not a plausible description of American constitutional law.
One function of the second amendment is to prevent the national government from interfering with state militias. It does this by creating individual rights, Heller holds, but those rights may take a different shape when asserted against a state than against the national government. Suppose Wisconsin were to decide that private ownership of long guns, but not handguns, would best serve the public interest in an effective militia; it is not clear that such a decision would be antithetical to a decision made in 1868. (The fourteenth amendment was ratified in 1868, making that rather than 1793 the important year for determining what rules must be applied to the states.) Suppose a state were to decide that people cornered in their homes must surrender rather than fight back--in other words, that burglars should be deterred by the criminal law rather than self help. That decision would imply that no one is entitled to keep a handgun at home for self-defense, because self-defense would itself be a crime, and Heller concluded that the second amendment protects only the interests of law-abiding citizens. See United States v. Jackson, 555 F.3d 635 (7th Cir. 2009) (no constitutional right to have guns ready to hand when distributing illegal drugs).
Our hypothetical is not as farfetched as it sounds. Self-defense is a common-law gloss on criminal statutes, a defense that many states have modified by requiring people to retreat when possible, and to use non-lethal force when retreat is not possible. Wayne R. LaFave, 2 Substantive Criminal Law 10.4 (2d ed. 2003). An obligation to avoid lethal force in self-defense might imply an obligation to use pepper spray rather than handguns. A modification of the self-defense defense may or may not be in the best interest of public safety--whether guns deter or facilitate crime is a an empirical question, compare John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime (2d ed. 2000), with Paul H. Rubin & Hashem Dzehbakhsh, The effect of concealed handgun laws on crime, 23 International Rev. L. & Econ. 199 (2003), and Mark Duggan, More Guns, More Crime, 109 J. Pol. Econ. 1086 (2001)--but it is difficult to argue that legislative evaluation of which weapons are appropriate for use in self-defense has been out of the people's hands since 1868. The way to evaluate the relation between guns and crime is in scholarly journals and the political process, rather than invocation of ambiguous texts that long precede the contemporary debate. See Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735, 126 S. Ct. 2709, 165 L. Ed. 2d 842 (2006) (state may reformulate, and effectively abolish, insanity defense); Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228, 107 S. Ct. 1098, 94 L. Ed. 2d 267 (1987) (state may assign to defendant the burden of raising, and proving, self-defense).
Chicago and Oak Park are poorly placed to make these arguments. After all, Illinois has not abolished self-defense and has not expressed a preference for long guns over handguns. But the municipalities can, and do, stress another of the themes in the debate over incorporation of the Bill of Rights: That the Constitution establishes a federal republic where local differences are to be cherished as elements of liberty rather than extirpated in order to produce a single, nationally applicable rule. See New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311, 52 S. Ct. 371, 76 L. Ed. 747 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting) ("It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."); Crist v. Bretz, 437 U.S. 28, 40-53, 98 S. Ct. 2156, 57 L. Ed. 2d 24 (1978) (Powell, J., dissenting) (arguing that only "fundamental" liberties should be incorporated, and that even for incorporated amendments the state and federal rules may differ); Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Federalism is an older and more deeply rooted tradition than is a right to carry any particular kind of weapon. How arguments of this kind will affect proposals to "incorporate" the second amendment are for the Justices rather than a court of appeals.