Thursday, March 30, 2017

Milestones: Small v. United States, 544 U.S. 385 (2005)


Petitioner, a U.S. citizen, was convicted in a Japanese court for smuggling firearms into Japan, and was sentenced to five years in prison. After being released, the petitioner returned to the United States and purchased a gun. Under 18 U.S.C. s.922(g)(1), it is "unlawful for any person . . . who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . to . . . possess . . . any firearm." Petitioner was convicted of unlawful possession of firearms, and appealed.

The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 3 that "any court" did not include foreign court. Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices O'Connor, Ginsburg, Souter, Stevens joined. Justice Thomas wrote the dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined. (Chief Justice Rehnquist did not participate.)


Because we are in the season of Supreme Court justice nomination, constitutional interpretation is all the rage now. Here is a case concerning textualism, and the usual suspects--Thomas and Scalia--insist that "any court" must mean "any court" no matter where the court is located, including in Japan.

From a different angle, however, this case can stand for the proposition that Supreme Court justices do not obviously run along their perceived political lanes. The four "liberal" members of the court (plus Justice O'Connor as the swing vote) held in favor of more gun possession, while the two "conservative" members of the court (plus Justice Kennedy) held against. 


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