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Sonia Sotomayor versus the Second Amendment:

Maloney v. Cuomo is a 2009 per curiam opinion of the Second Circuit, upholding New York State's complete ban on the possession of nunchaku. New York is the only state in the nation with such an extreme ban.

In the opinion by Judges Pooler, Sotomayor, and Katzmann, the per curiam judges first cite Presser v. Illinois (1886) for the proposition that the Second Amendment directly applies only to the federal government, and not to the states. They also cite a more recent Second Circuit case which relies on Presser, for the same proposition. Bach v. Pataki, 408 F.3d 75 (2d Cir. 2005).

In this regard, Judges Sotomayor et al. are plainly correct. However, they seriously misconstrue the Second Amendment itself, when they write: "The Supreme Court recently held that this confers an individual right on citizens to keep and bear arms." To the contrary, as the Supreme Court explained at length in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Second Amendment does not "confer" any right; the right to arms pre-exists the Constitution. The Second Amendment protects but does not create that pre-existing right. As the Heller Court detailed, the fact that the right to arms is pre-constitutional is elaborated in the 1875 Supreme Court case, United States v. Cruikshank.

[UPDATE: Oren's post, above, accurately points out that Heller itself uses the word "confer", so even though the word is inconsistent with Heller's own explication of the right to arms as a pre-existing right, the Maloney opinion can't be faulted for using the same word.]

Presser did not discuss whether the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment makes the Second Amendment enforceable against the states. Indeed, Presser could not have discussed the question, since the doctrine of incorporation via the Due Process clause was not invented until later. The Sotomayor per curiam opinion ignores Due Process incorporation, even though any serious analysis of whether the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment enforceable against the states would have to address the issue. However, Maloney's pro se brief in the case never raised selective Due Process incorporation, but only addressed the Fourteenth Amendment in the context of unenumerated fundamental rights (Meyer v. Nebraska, Griswold v. Connecticut, etc.).

The Sotomayor per curiam opinion addressed the Fourteenth Amendment by quoting a previous Second Circuit decision: "Legislative acts that do not interfere with fundamental rights or single out suspect classifications carry with them a strong presumption of constitutionality and must be upheld if 'rationally related to a legitimate state interest.'" The opinion then went on to find a rational basis, since nunchaku had sometimes been used by criminals.

In other words, the Second Amendment is not "a fundamental right." The Sotomayor panel could have offered a legal explanation for why (in the panel's opinion) nunchaku are not "arms" within the meaning of the Second Amendment, and therefore a mere rational basis test for nunchaku bans is appropriate. But the Sotomayor court did not do so. To the contrary, the Sotomayor per curiam opinion treats any Second Amendment claim as not involving "a fundamental right."

The Maloney opinion is, on this issue, entirely consistent with Judge Sotomayor's opinion in a 2004 case: "the right to possess a gun is clearly not a fundamental right." United States v. Sanchez-Villar, 99 Fed.Appx. 256, 2004 WL 962938 (2d. Cir. 2004)(Summary Order of Judges Sack, Sotomayor & Kaplan), judgement vacated, Sanchez-Villar v. United States, 544 U.S. 1029 (2005)(for further consideration in light of the 2005 Booker decision on sentencing).

Judge Sotomayor's record suggests hostility, rather than empathy, for the tens of millions of Americans who exercise their right to keep and bear arms.

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