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Friday Supreme Court rulings touch on firearms, expert testimony, and interstate contracts

Police officers stand outside the Supreme Court. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Friday Supreme Court rulings touch on firearms, expert testimony, and interstate contracts

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that authorities can temporarily keep people from possessing firearms if the individuals have certain types of restraining orders placed upon them. The Court upheld a federal 1994 ban on firearms for people under restraining orders to stay away from their spouses or partners. The restraining order needs to be based on credible evidence that the individual poses a credible threat to another person, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. The 8-1 majority opinion was one of five the court issued on Friday.

What happened in this specific case? Texas authorities indicted respondent Zackey Rahimi on charges that he possessed a firearm while he was subject to a domestic violence restraining order. The prosecutors charged Rahimi with violating the 1994 law that says anyone with a restraining order against them based on credible evidence that they posed a threat to family members could not possess a firearm. The statute also applies to restraining orders that explicitly prohibit an individual from making threats of or committing acts of physical violence against family members. Rahimi did not contest that he was subject to a restraining order, but he argued the law violated his right to bear firearms in the Constitution. The Court ruled that the statute did not violate the Second Amendment. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

What other opinions did the Supreme Court issue today?

Smith v. Arizona: The Supreme Court ruled that when expert reports are used for their truthfulness in a trial, the authors of those reports must be present to testify about the facts in the report.

Background: In the case, Arizona police officers had found petitioner Jason Smith with large amounts of what they believed to be drugs. They arrested him and charged him with several drug-related offenses. An analyst conducting laboratory testing, Elizabeth Rast, later confirmed that the substances police found with Smith were drugs and wrote a report. At trial, prosecutors did not subpoena her to testify because she had quit working at the lab. Instead, they called another analyst to testify about what was in Rast’s report.

The legal case: The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause requires that a defendant at trial be allowed to confront their accuser, or those testifying against them. Smith challenged his conviction, arguing that, since he was not able to confront Rast, his rights had been violated. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled against Smith’s challenge. But the Supreme Court ultimately decided that since prosecutors were relying on the truthfulness of the facts detailed in Rast’s report, she needed to be in court to testify about and answer questions regarding the truthfulness of those facts.

Erlinger v. United States: The Supreme Court ruled that juries must unanimously decide whether a prior conviction qualifies as a reason a convicted felon should get a longer sentence for possessing a firearm.

Background: Petitioner Paul Erlinger pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. At his sentencing, the judge found Erlinger eligible for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, or ACCA. The law says that anyone convicted of committing certain crimes on three previous, separate occasions can receive an enhanced sentence if they are later found guilty of possessing a firearm. Erlinger’s sentence jumped from a maximum of 10 years in prison to a minimum of 15 years in prison.

The legal case: However, an appeals court later ruled that two of his prior offenses could not be used to enhance his sentence under the ACCA. At his resentencing, prosecutors brought up a 26-year-old conviction for a string of burglaries that Erlinger had previously committed over several days. Erlinger argued those offenses were not committed on separate occasions, but were part of a single criminal episode. Therefore, the court couldn’t use the burglaries as evidence of committing crimes in multiple instances, he argued.

Erlinger also argued that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution required that a jury to unanimously decide based on the facts whether it was one episode or multiple occasions. A judge couldn’t make that decision themselves, he argued. The Supreme Court sided with Erlinger, agreeing that the Constitution requires the jury to reach a unanimous verdict on whether or not offenses occurred in one episode or multiple episodes.

Department of State v. Munoz: The Supreme Court decided that Americans did not have a constitutionally protected liberty interest in getting their non-citizen spouses admitted to the United States.

Background: Respondent Sandra Muñoz, an American citizen, married Luis Asencio-Cordero, a citizen of El Salvador, in 2010. The couple sought to obtain a U.S. immigration visa for Asencio-Cordero and to have him classified as an immediate relative. After conducting several interviews with Asencio-Cordero, an official at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador denied his visa application because the official had reason to believe Asencio-Cordero only wanted to enter the United States to participate in criminal activity within the country. The official suspected that Asencio-Cordero had been a member of the violent international criminal gang MS-13. Asencio-Cordero disavowed any association with MS-13 and appealed for the officer’s decision to change. Higher-level officials at the embassy in El Salvador and at the State Department both sided with the initial officer’s decision not to grant Asencio-Cordero an immigration visa.

The legal case: Muñoz and Asencio-Cordero sued. They alleged that by refusing to grant Asencio-Cordero an immigration visa they had deprived Muñoz of her constitutionally protected liberty interest in having her husband living with her in the United States. The district court ruled in favor of the State Department, but the appeals court sided with Muñoz. The Supreme Court overturned the appeals court’s decision, saying that U.S. citizens do not have a fundamental liberty interest in having their noncitizen spouses admitted into the country.

Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado: The Supreme Court held that Texas and New Mexico could not enter into a consent decree to settle a dispute that arose under an interstate contract of which the federal government was party to without the federal government’s agreement.

Background: Congress’ Rio Grande Compact of 1938 determines how the waters of the Rio Grande are apportioned to Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Under the agreement, New Mexico must deliver certain amounts of water to the Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico. From there, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation releases certain amounts of water for delivery to areas in New Mexico and Texas. Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado in 2013 alleging that excessive groundwater water pumping in New Mexico had depleted the amount of water getting to Texas under the terms of the contract.

The legal case: The federal government sought to join the lawsuit, or “intervene” in it, and in 2018 the Supreme Court allowed it to do so. Texas and New Mexico later sought the Supreme Court’s approval for a consent decree that would resolve the dispute between the two states. The federal government objected to the consent decree. The Supreme Court denied approval of the consent decree, ruling that because the federal government was a party to the initial agreement, its objections to the consent decree deserved consideration.

Josh Schumacher

Josh is a breaking news reporter for WORLD. He’s a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College.

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