Voisine v. U.S.: Closing the Loophole (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9))

Voisine v. U.S.: Closing the Loophole

The United States Supreme court, in its decision in Voisine et al. v. United States, clarifies and narrows the application of a section of federal law that was codified more than twenty years ago. In its decision, the Court unequivocally states that the primary aim of the majority decision was to “close [a] dangerous loophole” left open by 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) when it was ratified by the Lautenberg Amendment in 1996.

Specific to the issue examined by the Court, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) makes it illegal for anyone “who has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm.  The codification of this section of the United States Code was enacted by an amendment of the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 which expanded on the language of 18 U.S.C. § 921. The crux of the legal issue in Voisine focused on one main question: Does a misdemeanor crime that requires only a showing of recklessness qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under federal statutes 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9)?

Factual and Procedural History

The named petitioner in this case, Stephen L. Voisine, was a resident of Kingman, Maine at the time of the precipitating event. In both 2003 and 2005, Voisine was convicted of assaulting a woman with whom he maintained a domestic relationship. Maine Revised Statute 17-A § 207 establishes that a person is guilty of assault if he or she “knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly causes bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” A conviction under that section of the revised statute constitutes a misdemeanor domestic violence assault if the victim is a member of the defendant’s family or household. In 2009, Voisine was reported to the local authorities for shooting a bald eagle in Kingman township. During the subsequent investigation, officers found that Voisine was in possession of a firearm, despite his prior convictions for assault. Voisine was charged with various violations, including a violation of 18 U.S. C. § 922(g)(9).

The co-litigant in Voisine, William Armstrong III, also sustained several misdemeanor convictions for assaulting his wife in 2002 and 2008. Two years after his final conviction for assault, Armstong was arrested after a search of his residence for drugs and drug paraphernalia turned up ammunition that was later tied to several firearms that Armstrong had previously transported to another location. Armstrong was subsequently charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9).

Both Voisine and Armstrong filed motions with the trial courts to dismiss the charges lodged against them, arguing that the language of the state statute covering misdemeanor domestic violence assault does not constitute misdemeanor domestic violence under the federal statute[1]. The litigants argued that, under Maine’s statute, “recklessness” is sufficient to sustain a conviction of misdemeanor domestic violence, whereas under the federal statute it is not. The litigants argued that because of this discrepancy between the state and federal statutes, they had not, in fact, violated the federal statute under which they were both charged.

The United States District Court for the district of Maine denied the defendants’ motions and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed on appeal. The defendants petitioned for a writ of certiorari from the United States Supreme Court, which remanded the case due to the 2014 decision in United States v. Castleman, 695 F. 3d 582[2]. On remand, the appellate court again held that Maine’s statute constituted misdemeanor domestic violence under the federal statute.

 

Decision and Analysis

The Court in Voisine ultimately found that a conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence under a state statute that merely requires “recklessness” does qualify as a conviction for domestic violence under 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9). The Court was split 6-2 in its decision, with Justice Elena Kagan delivering the majority decision. The Court held that the relevant text of the statute regarding the use of force does not preclude an interpretation of the statute that includes an act of force carried out with recklessness or with a conscious disregard of the substantial risk of causing harm. The Court additionally found that the legislative history of the statute supports this specific reading, stating that Congress expressly intended for the statute to prevent individuals who had sustained misdemeanor convictions of domestic violence from possessing or transporting firearms specifically because many states’ statutes provide definitions of misdemeanor offenses that only reckless intent. The Court’s reasoning was that, if these alternate definitions of misdemeanor domestic violence were not included in the statutory prohibition, the federal statute would not be an effective enforcement tool in the majority of jurisdictions.

[1] The litigants also challenged that the charges violated their constitutional right to bear arms under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, however the crux of the Court’s decision rested with the litigants’ challenge to the federal statute itself.
[1] The Court is Castleman held that a conviction of misdemeanor domestic assault under Tennessee law does constitute a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under the relevant federal statute because offensive touching satisfied the “physical force” requirement of the federal statute.

 

Dissent

Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonya Sotomayor were the two dissenting justices on the panel. Justice Thomas drafted the dissent, in which he argued that the term “use of force” necessarily required intentional conduct to be included under statutory firearm prohibition. Justice Thomas further argued that, the Court has historically interpreted the term “use” to require intentional conduct in order to maintain consistency with the manner in which the term is used in other sections of the statute. Justice Thomas argues that the Court’s decision erroneously combines the concepts of recklessly causing force and recklessly causing harm through the intentional use of force. Because the Maine Revised Statute does include reckless conduct whereas the federal statute does not, any conviction under the state statute should not trigger the statutory ban on firearm possession. Justice Thomas also addressed the Constitutional challenge, arguing that the Court’s decision overreaches and as such is in conflict with the litigants’ second amendment rights.

 

State Sovereignty and Forced Uniformity

The 50 states that comprise the United States are all separate and sovereign entities. Each maintains its own constitution, government and court systems. Each maintains a legislative body or bodies charged with enacting state statutes, an executive body that is charged with promulgating regulations and statutes, and a judicial body charged with interpreting and enforcing those regulations and statutes. In the large majority of legal issues that come before state courts, that state’s Supreme or Appellate court is the final interpreter of those issues. State appellate courts receive an average of 270,000 cases for review annually. By way of comparison, federal appellate courts receive less than one-quarter of that amount[3].

Diversity in the promulgation and codification of state laws or statutes is one of the mainstays of state sovereignty. Diversity of codes and statues among states is integral to an individual state’s ability to maintain a functional and, hopefully, just court system. The code of each state necessarily reflects democratic sentiment as to what the current law is at the time the law is enacted or amended. And the state court’s interpretation of those laws reflects the legislative intent behind the enactment or amendment.

Unless the issue is one over which the federal government retains exclusive jurisdiction, the interpretation of a section of the state statute should be left up to the state legislature that enacted it, and the state judicial body tasked with enforcing it. States cleave to the idea that they are in control of all aspects of government over which the state itself retains jurisdiction. Even when the federal and state governments diverge on specific issues of law, a modicum of respect and deference is generally observed. Historically, efforts to create a “uniform code” have been largely unsuccessful, with the exception of the Uniform Commercial Code and the Model Penal Code. Uniform acts can only become state law if they are enacted by the state legislature, and the majority of uniform code acts have only ever been considered or adopted by a very limited number of state legislatures.

The Supreme Court of the United States is, among myriad other things, tasked with reviewing legal issues that have not been or cannot be resolved by a state court. A large majority of these issues have wide-reaching implications, or can and will set significant legal precedent. However, in recent years, SCOTUS has come under fire for overstepping its reach and unceremoniously treading on the underskirts of states’ sovereignty. In Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her scathing decent that, “All respect for the office of the presidency aside, I assumed that the obvious and unadulterated decline of freedom and constitutional sovereignty, not to mention the efforts to curb the power of judicial review, spoke for itself.” Ginsburg was unabashed in her lambasting of the highest court in the nation for what she, and others, have alleged is a clear violation of the role of SCOTUS in its review of cases that necessarily require it to reexamine or interpret the original intent of a state legislature in the amendment or enactment of a code or regulation.

[1] Examining the Work of the State Courts, Court Statistics Project, National Center for State Courts, http://www.courtstatistics.org/other-pages/examining-the-work-of-state-courts.aspx

In examination of petitions that tread even reluctantly into the territory of re-interpreting the meaning behind any state code or regulation, or the definitions thereunder, SCOTUS has an obligation to each and every state in the nation to give deference to that state legislature’s intent. Re-defining a term or group of terms that underpin any state law is a slippery slope that leads sharply away from state sovereignty and towards a more totalitarian form of governing against which this nation has resisted for centuries.

Allowing SCOTUS to reinvent the legislative history behind any state code or regulation is tantamount to deciding a crucial legal issue by administrative fiat, as opposed to cogent, careful, legal analysis. For the Voisine Court, basing its decision on the idea that the federal statute does not preclude inclusion of a specific act, when it also does not specifically include it, is dangerous territory. Especially when the crux of the Court’s argument rests on a federal judiciary’s re-interpretation of a state legislature’s original intent.

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