WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday restricted the scope of the federal armed careers law, a type of three-strike law, ruling by 5 to 4 votes that violent crimes are ruthlessly – as opposed to willful or knowingly – count as strikes .
The law provides compulsory 15-year prison sentences for those convicted of possession of firearms if previously convicted of three violent crimes. A crime is considered a violent crime if it involves “the use, attempt, or threat of physical violence against another person”.
The majority consisted of an unusual coalition in which Judge Neil M. Gorsuch joined the three-man Liberal wing and Judge Clarence Thomas voted with this majority for various reasons.
The case concerned Charles Borden Jr., who pleaded guilty to a state gun crime. Prosecutors attempted the mandatory 15-year sentence based on three previous convictions, one in Tennessee for reckless assault. That conviction, argued Mr Borden, should not be considered a strike. Lower courts rejected his argument and he was convicted under professional criminal law.
Judge Elena Kagan, who wrote for four judges, disagreed, saying the law excludes crimes in which the accused was merely reckless. The words “against the person of another”, she wrote, required a willful behavior and “requires that the perpetrator directs his action at another person or is aimed at them”.
She gave an example to show the difference. Imagine a commuter who is late for work, runs over a red light and runs over a pedestrian. This driver was inconsiderate, she wrote, but “has not directed any violence against another: he has not taught his car that the pedestrian understands that he will be run over.”
“In common language,” wrote Judge Kagan, “against” means “contrary to” and gave examples: “The general sent his forces against a rival regiment, or the chess master played the queen’s gambit against their opponent.”
The Supreme Court: Upcoming Cases
- A great month. June is the peak season for Supreme Court rulings. It is the last month of the court’s annual tenure, and judges tend to overturn their key decisions for the end of the term.
- 4 big cases. The court will determine the fate of Obamacare and a case where numerous electoral rule laws could be enacted in the years ahead. It also takes a case involving religion and gay rights, and one about whether students can be disciplined for what they say on social media (here’s an audio report on the subject; and here is the public opinion on some of the big cases).
- What to look out for. The approaches taken by Amy Coney Barrett, the newest Justice, and Brett Kavanaugh, the second newest. They will be crucial because the three liberal judges now need at least two of the six conservatives to form a majority. Before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberals only needed one conservative.
- Looking ahead. Next year’s term, which will begin this fall, will include abortion, guns and possibly positive action cases, and could be the most significant term to date under Chief Justice John Roberts.
In addition to Justice Gorsuch, Judges Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor agreed with Justice Kagan’s pluralism.
Judge Thomas agreed with the result of the plurality, but for a different reason. “A crime that can be committed through sheer recklessness does not have the ‘use of physical force’ as an element,” he wrote, citing an earlier statement, “because that phrase ‘has a well-understood meaning which only refers to willful acts “. designed to cause harm. ‘”
Contradicting this, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote that “the court’s decision will override Congressional judgment on the danger posed by recidivists who illegally possess firearms and threaten further violence.”
“Offenses against the person,” he wrote, is a widely used legal term in the art that encompasses categories of crimes and does not imply any degree of guilt. Judge Kagan replied that the sentence is significantly different in professional criminal law.
“That’s not a way to legally build,” she wrote. “A court cannot delete awkward language and insert comfortable language in order to preserve the preferential meaning of the court.”
Judge Kavanaugh added that the ordinary meaning of “against someone else’s person” definitely includes recklessness.
“If a person ruthlessly fires a gun at a house and injures someone in it, that person has used violence against the victim,” he wrote. “If a person ruthlessly throws bricks off an overpass and kills a driver passing under it, that person has used violence against the victim. If a person recklessly drives 80 mph through a neighborhood and kills a child, that person has used violence against the child.
“It is against common sense and the English language,” he wrote, “to suggest otherwise.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judges Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett joined Judge Kavanaugh’s disagreement in the Borden v. United States case, numbers 19-5410.