Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules on Political Speech, Straw Gun Purchases, and Prepares for New Cases

Close decision approves of regulations over third-party gun buys


The Supreme Court has just a couple of weeks left to rule on 17 cases before them. Today the court whittled the load down to 14 with three rulings. At the same time, they made some decisions about new cases they will or will not be taking on.

Ohio 'False' Political Speech Lawsuit May Move Forward

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that a lawsuit in Ohio challenging the constitutionality of a law criminalizing "false" political speech can move forward. Reason's Damon Root explained the importance this morning:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously today in favor of the conservative anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, allowing the group to proceed with a First Amendment challenge against an Ohio law criminalizing "false" political speech.

The case of Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus arose during the 2010 congressional elections when the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) announced its intention to oppose the reelection campaign of Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) by purchasing billboard and radio ads describing Driehaus' vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as tantamount to supporting "tax-payer funded abortion."

In response, Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission charging SBA List with seeking to spread political lies about him. Driehaus' lawyer also sent a letter to the billboard company, threatening a similar complaint. The company promptly refused to run the SBA List ads. …

Today, by a vote of 9-0, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled that decision and held that Susan B. Anthony List must be allowed its day in federal court. "The threat of future enforcement of the false statement statute is substantial," declared the unanimous majority opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas. What's more, Thomas wrote, "the specter of enforcement is so substantial that the owner of the billboard refused to display SBA's message after receiving a letter threatening Commission proceedings. On these facts, the prospect of future enforcement is far from 'imaginary or speculative.'"

Gun Ruling a Blow Against Third-Party Buyers

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that gun buyers may be required to report when they are purchasing firearms for third parties. From USA Today:

[Justice Elena] Kagan, a New Yorker who acknowledged during her 2010 confirmation hearings that she was not very familiar with guns, was opposed by four conservative justices, led by Justice Antonin Scalia — who famously has taken her hunting on several occasions.

"No piece of information is more important under federal firearms law than the identity of a gun's purchaser — the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer," Kagan said.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissent, noting that the decision makes it a federal crime to engage in what may well be legal behavior:

"The court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner," he said. "Whether or not that is a sensible result, the statutes Congress enacted do not support it."

The straw purchaser in the case was a former Virginia police officer who bought a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle in Pennsylvania. Both were legal gun owners. But the purchaser, Bruce James Abramski, filled out a federal form indicating that he was the "actual buyer" of the firearm.

His attorney, Richard Dietz, argued that a compromise reached in Congress decades ago was meant to focus only on the initial buyer. Even if it did intend to identify the ultimate purchaser, he said, Abramski didn't violate the law because his uncle was licensed to own guns.

No Debt Relief for Argentina

The third Supreme Court decision is not exactly burning up the newswires. The court determined that the nation of Argentina will not get any legal relief from the United States against creditors. From SCOTUSblog:

In a seven-to-one decision (with one Justice not taking part), the Court ruled that investors who bought bonds that went into default and never drew any pay from Argentina can get access to a potentially wide array of bank records to locate financial assets overseas that those investors might be able to seize as compensation.

And, without comment, the Court cleared the way for those same investors to demand payment on the bonds they hold whenever Argentina makes any payments to holders of later bond issues which that country has continued to honor.  At this point, it is not clear when that opportunity would actually occur, as a practical matter, because Argentina has some legal maneuvers still available and there has been some talk of a potential settlement deal.

Other Actions

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear a case intended to determine when (or if) online comments on social media like Facebook cross the line into criminal activity. The defendant in the case is accused of crossing the line for musing about killing his wife and others on his Facebook page. The Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear a challenge about whether a public school can hold graduation ceremonies in the auditorium of a church. Their refusal leaves intact lower court rulings that holding school events in churches is an impermissible endorsement of a particular religion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the refusal to hear the challenge.