Supreme Court Tackles Definition of Domestic Violence


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The Supreme Court weighed in Wednesday on a federal law prohibiting those convicted of domestic violence from owning guns. Though the court refused to consider a challenge on Second Amendment grounds, it did take on clarifying the definition of "domestic violence," with a majority of the justices agreeing that it can include "seemingly minor acts" that may not be characterized as "violent" in a nondomestic context. Justice Antonin Scalia objected, accusing his fellow justices of distorting the law and "impoverish[ing] the language."

The case, United States v. Castleman, involved Tennessee resident James A. Castleman, who was convicted of assaulting the mother of his child in 2001. Afterward, Castleman argued that the federal gun prohibition didn't apply to him because it defines a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence as one involving "physical force" and his conviction had merely been for "intentionally or knowing causing bodily injury." Yep. 

A federal trial judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with him, but the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed those decisions.

Writing for six justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women defines domestic violence to include "hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, and hair pulling" and that acts of this nature are "easy to describe as 'domestic violence' when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner" to the other partner's control.

"If a seemingly minor act like this draws the attention of authorities and leads to a successful prosecution for a misdemeanor offense, it does not offend common sense or the English language to characterize the resulting conviction as a misdemeanor crime of 'domestic violence.'" 

In a concurrence, Justice Scalia agreed that Castleman's crime amounted to domestic violence. But he objected to his benchmates' definition of domestic violence, calling it unfortunate that they'd interpret "any offensive touching, no matter how slight, as sufficient" to count as domestic violence.

"That absurdity is not only at war with the English language, it is flatly inconsistent" with legal defintions of domestic violence, Scalia wrote. He went on to say that the DOJ is entitled to adopt anty definition of domestic violence it wants, but

when they (and the Court) imporse their all-embracing definition on the rest of us, they not only distort the law, they impoverish the language. When everything is domestic violence, nothing is. Congress will have to come up with a new word (I cannot imagine what it would be) to denote actual domestic violence.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, issued a separate concurrence.