WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court held Monday that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live, expanding the conservative court's embrace of gun rights since John Roberts became Chief Justice.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices cast doubt on handgun bans in the Chicago area, but signaled that some limitations on the Constitution's "right to keep and bear arms" could survive legal challenges.
On its busy final day before a three-month recess, the court also ruled that a public law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join, jumped into the nation's charged immigration debate by agreeing to review an employer sanctions law from Arizona and said farewell to Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring after more than 34 years.
A short distance from the court, the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Stevens.
In the guns case, Justice Samuel Alito said for the court that the Second Amendment right "applies equally to the federal government and the states."
The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and four liberals opposed. Roberts voted with the majority.
Two years ago, the court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the home.
That ruling applied only to federal laws. It struck down a ban on handguns and a trigger lock requirement for other guns in the District of Columbia, a federal city with unique legal standing. At the same time, the court was careful not to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms here.
Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill., where handguns have been banned for nearly 30 years. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says those laws appear to be the last two remaining outright bans.
Lower federal courts upheld the two laws, noting that judges on those benches were bound by Supreme Court precedent and that it would be up to the high court justices to ultimately rule on the true reach of the Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights serve as a check on state and local, as well as federal, laws.
Monday's decision did not explicitly strike down the Chicago area laws. Instead, it ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling. But it left little doubt that the statutes eventually would fall.
Still, Alito noted that the declaration that the Second Amendment is fully binding on states and cities "limits (but by no means eliminates) their ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."
Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, each wrote a dissent. Stevens said that unlike the Washington case, Monday's decision "could prove far more destructive — quite literally — to our nation's communities and to our constitutional structure."
The ruling seemed unlikely to resolve questions and ongoing legal challenges about precisely what sort of gun control laws are permissible.
The response of the District to the court's ruling in 2008 is illustrative of the uncertainty.
Local lawmakers in Washington, D.C. imposed a series of regulations on handgun ownership, including requirements to register weapons and to submit to a multiple-choice test, fingerprinting and a ballistics test. Owners must also show they have gotten classroom instruction on handling a gun and have spent at least an hour on the firing range. Some 800 people have now registered handguns in the city.
Anticipating a similar result in their case, Chicago lawmakers are looking at even more stringent regulations.
But the new regulations themselves are likely to themselves be the subject of lawsuits, a fact noted by the dissenting justices Monday. Already in Washington, Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original case before the Supreme Court, has sued the city over its new laws.
Heller argues that the stringent restrictions violate the intent of the high court's decision. So far, a federal judge has upheld the limitations, but the case has been appealed.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said his politically powerful group "will continue to work at every level to insure that defiant city councils and cynical politicians do not transform this constitutional victory into a practical defeat through Byzantine regulations and restrictions."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ardent proponent of gun control, said the ruling allows cities "to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists while at the same time respecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."
New York does not ban guns, but restricts who can have them.
The court also was split between liberals and conservatives in its 5-4 ruling against a Christian student group that sought official recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law.
The Christian Legal Society requires that voting members sign a statement of faith and regards "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" as being inconsistent with that faith.
But Hastings said no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.
The high court upheld the lower court rulings saying the Christian group's First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college's decision.
"In requiring CLS — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations," Ginsburg said in the court's majority opinion. "CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy." Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberals in the outcome.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a strong dissent for the court's conservatives, saying the opinion was "a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country."
"Our proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom of express 'the thought that we hate,'" Alito said. "Today's decision rests on a very different principle: no freedom of expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country's institutions of higher learning."
In his final appearance on the bench, Stevens read aloud a brief letter to the other justices, after Roberts read one to Stevens.
The 90-year-old justice pointed out how times had changed since he joined the court in 1975. Then, he said, he would have addressed his remarks to his brethren.
Now, with two women as justices, he called them his colleagues.
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