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USA Today gave a representative of extremist gun organization Gun Owners of America (GOA) a platform to smear Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. The group wrote a column distorting the facts on several U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit opinions to claim Garland “had 4 chances to vote against gun rights, and he took them all.”
GOA is a far-right organization with past ties to anti-Semites and white supremacist groups and a leader, Larry Pratt, who has repeatedly suggested that politicians should fear being shot by a GOA supporter if they pass laws regulating firearms.
In a May 1 column at USAToday.com, GOA general counsel Michael Hammond distorted Garland’s involvement in four cases decided before the D.C. Circuit, where Garland sits as chief judge, to claim Garland is “anti-gun.”
In one case Hammond cited, Garland did not participate in the ruling, but rather took part in a vote to decide whether the entire D.C. Circuit should rehear the case, which would require the full panel of judges to consider it. According to legal experts, a judge’s vote to rehear or not rehear a case is not indicative of what the judge thinks the outcome of the case should be. Two of the cases Hammond cited were not actually decided on Second Amendment grounds and cannot be characterized as showing bias for or against gun rights. And in the fourth case he cited, Garland did not participate in the ruling and the case was not decided on Second Amendment grounds.
Parker v. District of Columbia
Hammond first attacked Garland for his participation in a vote related to Parker v. District of Columbia, a 2007 challenge to Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban. In a 2-1 panel decision -- which Garland did not participate in -- the D.C. Circuit reversed a lower court's decision upholding the ban, finding that D.C.'s law violated the Second Amendment.
Following the ruling, Garland was one of four judges, including George H.W. Bush appointee Judge Raymond Randolph, to vote to have the entire D.C. Circuit rehear the case en banc. A majority of D.C. Circuit judges voted not to rehear the case, and it moved on to the Supreme Court, where it became the landmark Second Amendment decision District of Columbia v. Heller.
The claim that Garland’s en banc vote in Parker means that he is "anti-gun" is a smear developed by the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), a discredited right-wing group that is spending millions to oppose Garland's nomination. Numerous legal experts, however, have debunked the claim that an en banc vote is representative of how a judge would rule on the merits if the case were reheard.
According to the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, an en banc rehearing “ordinarily will not be ordered unless” a full panel’s “consideration is necessary to secure or maintain uniformity of the court's decisions; or the proceeding involves a question of exceptional importance.” As PolitiFact noted, the Parker case satisfied both of those conditions.
Seegars v. Gonzalez
Hammond also attacked Garland for his involvement in a case preceding Parker that unsuccessfully challenged D.C.'s handgun ban. As in Parker, Garland did not participate in the decision in Seegars v. Gonzalez, but rather participated in a vote on whether to rehear the case en banc.
The Seegars case was brought by a group of District of Columbia residents who argued that D.C.’s handgun ban and trigger lock laws violated their Second Amendment rights. In 2005, the D.C. Circuit ruled against the residents in an opinion authored by Reagan appointee Judge Stephen F. Williams.
While the D.C. residents made a Second Amendment argument against D.C.’s gun law, the court never ruled on the merits of this argument. Instead, the court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, with the majority opinion finding that “under controlling circuit precedent no plaintiff has standing” to challenge D.C.’s handgun ban and trigger lock laws. The vote to rehear the case failed 7-3, with Garland voting against rehearing alongside D.C. Circuit judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans. Then-D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a Reagan appointee, filed a concurrence in the denial to rehear the case. As in Parker, Garland’s vote does not indicate how he would have ruled on the merits of the case.
National Rifle Association v. Reno
Hammond also cited Garland’s joining of the 2000 decision National Rifle Association v. Reno as supposed evidence of “anti-gun” bias. As with his citation of the Parker case, Hammond’s attacks concerning NRA v. Reno originate from debunked talking points pushed by JCN.
In Reno, the NRA claimed that the way the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for gun purchases temporarily retained data on gun owners violated a federal prohibition on creating a registry of gun owners.
On appeal, the NRA lost the decision, 2-1, with Garland joining Judge David S. Tatel's majority opinion, which ruled: “Finding nothing in the Brady Act that unambiguously prohibits temporary retention of information about lawful transactions, and finding that the Attorney General has reasonably interpreted the Act to permit retention of such information for audit purposes, we affirm the district court's dismissal of the complaint.”
As with the Seegars case, the ruling was not decided on Second Amendment grounds. Rather, the case was one of statutory construction and interpretation, assessing whether the NICS system of temporary record retention was permissible under the language of the Brady Act and the Department of Justice’s interpretation of that act.
Furthermore, no court accepted the NRA’s argument that the NICS system was tantamount to a gun registry. The NRA lost the case at the federal district court level, then again at the D.C. Circuit in the ruling Garland joined, before the then-conservative-leaning Supreme Court finally denied a request by the NRA to hear the case. In fact, Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft opposed the NRA’s request that the Supreme Court hear the case, writing that the D.C. Circuit decision Garland joined was “correct.”
United States v. Burwell
The last example Hammond cited as supposed evidence of Garland’s “anti-gun” bias was the 2012 decision United States v. Burwell, where the D.C. Circuit reheard a case involving a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence given to a man convicted of possessing a machine gun while committing a "crime of violence."
At issue was whether the criminal defendant in that case, who had brandished a fully automatic AK-47 assault rifle during a series of bank robberies, knew that the firearm was capable of fully automatic fire (the gun in question was capable of both automatic and semi-automatic fire).
A 2012 decision before the entire D.C. Circuit – after members of the court had voted to rehear the case en banc – affirmed the D.C. Circuit’s original decision in a majority opinion that upheld the defendant’s conviction.
Garland joined the majority opinion authored by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a George W. Bush appointee.
Like with the Seegars and Reno cases, it is misleading to claim that the opinion here offers an indication of a judge’s view on gun rights because the case was not decided on Second Amendment grounds. Instead, the case was decided on statutory grounds: whether the sentencing minimum law required the prosecution to prove that the defendant knew whether the firearm used in a crime of violence was fully automatic.
The ruling affirming the defendant’s conviction largely relied upon prior precedent within the D.C. Circuit -- a 1992 case called United States v. Harris. In that case, a panel of judges composed of Carter appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg, George H.W. Bush appointee Clarence Thomas, and Reagan appointee Laurence H. Silberman issued a per curiam opinion that reached the same legal conclusion as the opinion Garland joined in the Burwell case.