Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Supreme Court Decisions Not Always About "Politics"

A brief diversion from Cincinnati blogging for a moment of blawging.

Today, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Hayes, in which the Court was called upon to determine what Congress meant by "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence." The facts are simple: in 1994, Randy Edward Hayes was convicted in a West Virginia court of battery. (In Ohio, we'd call it assault.) The victim was Hayes's wife. In 1996, Congress amended the Gun Control Act to make it unlawful for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to own a firearm. And in 2004, Hayes was found to be in possession of a firearm and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. 922(g), a crime that carries a possible 10-year sentence.

Hayes's lawyers moved to dismiss the indictment. After all, he wasn't convicted of domestic violence--he was convicted of battery. But the district court construed the federal statute's definition of "crime of domestic violence" broadly, ruling that regardless of whether the crime of which Hayes was found guilty required proof of a domestic relationship, Hayes could be prosecuted under federal law if the federal government could prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the victim and Hayes shared a domestic relationship back in 1994.

Eventually, the case made its way to the US Supreme Court. I know what you're thinking. It's a criminal case. The "liberals" will bend over backwards to help him beat the rap. The "conservatives" will want to lock him up and throw away the key. A moderate or two will decide Hayes's fate. Because federal law is all about politics, right? Well, it's good you thought that, but you're wrong.

The Supreme Court voted 7-2 to uphold the conviction. The Court's decision was written by (wait for it) Justice Ginsburg. The two dissenters? Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia. The majority concluded that Congress, when it wrote "crime of domestic violence," meant to include any crime that could be domestic violence, regardless of whether it was charged or prosecuted that way. The Chief Justice (with whom I agree) argued that such a construction strains logic. He also argued that since the statute is ambiguous, any doubt has to be resolved in favor of the defendant (a concept known as the rule of lenity).

So for those of you (on either the left or the right) who insist that Supreme Court decision-making is just politics in another arena, remember cases like this. While the justices no doubt have ideological views that shape their rulings, they are, in fact, striving to uphold the rule of law, not just to further a particular political cause.

And finally: don't wring your hands too much over Randy Hayes's fate. He wasn't sent to prison; instead, the judge sentenced him to five years' probation.

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