Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Guns In The Courthouse

The Arkansas Supreme Court decided a case involving an attorney's right to enter a courthouse while armed 

Arkansas lawyer Chris Corbitt attempted to bring a firearm into the Pulaski County District Court and the Juvenile Justice Complex. Mr. Corbitt’s initial complaint seeking permission to carry firearms in courthouses was dismissed by the circuit court, a decision later affirmed by a majority of this court. Subsequently, after encountering firearm restrictions in a different courthouse, Mr. Corbitt and other plaintiffs filed another complaint, which was also dismissed. We hold that Mr. Corbitt is collaterally estopped from pursuing his claims in the case at bar, but the remaining plaintiffs may proceed. We further hold that attorneys, as officers of the court, are authorized by statute to possess handguns in courthouses. We reverse the circuit court’s denial of the petition for a declaratory judgment as it pertains to the remaining plaintiffs and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The court

In interpreting the language of the statute in parts relevant to the remaining issues in this appeal, it unequivocally permits certain individuals, including 1) law enforcement officers, 2) bailiffs, and 3) officers of the court, to possess handguns in courthouses within the state. First, each word in a statute must be given significance and meaning. Here, the inclusion of the term “officer of the court” alongside law enforcement officers and bailiffs suggests a deliberate intent by the legislature to afford individuals falling within this category the privilege of possessing handguns in court settings. Next, it is important to emphasize that the term "other" serves as a determiner in this case. If the drafters had meant for the phrase "authorized by the court" to apply to each item, they would have left out the word "other."  As a result, attorneys, as officers of the court, are recognized under the statute as individuals authorized to possess handguns in courthouses within the state.

Although Amendment 80, section 3 of the Arkansas Constitution was raised initially in this case, we need not address it given that appellants have abandoned the argument regarding courtrooms on appeal and have narrowly argued their position as it relates to courthouses. The dissent claims this court distinguished courtrooms from courthouses, and that is “a distinction without a difference.” Yet this court distinguishes the two because the General Assembly distinguished them in the section we are called to interpret. Section 5-73-122(e) demonstrates that the General Assembly did not consider courthouses and courtrooms the same.

KAREN R. BAKER, Justice, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

While I agree with the majority’s conclusion that Corbitt is barred by collateral estoppel, I dissent because I cannot agree with the majority’s decision on the merits as applied to the remaining appellants. As noted by the majority, “[o]n appeal, appellants have abandoned any argument regarding courtrooms and proceed only with the applicability of section 5-73-122 to courthouses.” However, Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-73-122(b) makes no distinction between courtrooms and courthouses. It provides:

[A] law enforcement officer, either on-duty or off-duty, officer of the court, bailiff, or other person authorized by the court is permitted to possess a handgun in the courtroom of any court or a courthouse of this state.

As the appellees point out, because the statute treats courtrooms and courthouses the same, the attempt to distinguish courtrooms and courthouses is a distinction without a difference. In my view, the majority’s interpretation of the statute as it applies to courthouses necessarily applies to courtrooms. In fact, in its interpretation of section 5-73-122(b), the majority states that “the inclusion of the term ‘officer of the court’ alongside law enforcement officers and bailiffs suggests a deliberate intent by the legislature to afford individuals falling within this category the privilege of possessing handguns in court settings.” (Emphasis added.) This leads to an unconstitutional result...

Because the statute places courtrooms and courthouses on equal footing, the majority’s interpretation of the plain language of the statute violates Amendment 80, as it is for this court to prescribe the rules of pleading, practice, and procedure for all courts. This power cannot be abrogated by the legislature. Accordingly, I must dissent.

One of the Appellants is the subject of a story in Above the Law. (Mike Frisch)


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