Thursday, July 24, 2008

Alito: US v. Rybar

(This is the fourth in our series of posts on Justice Samuel Alito. Read the first three posts here, here and here.)

US v. Rybar [link]

The background: Raymond Rybar, Jr. was convicted of violating a federal law criminalizing possession of machine guns. He appealed, challenging the law on constitutional grounds.

The question: The court had to decide whether a law making it, "unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machinegun" was outside the scope of Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce.

And it had to decide this in the context of a new Supreme Court precedent, US v. Lopez, which held that Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce was limited to activity with a substantial effect on interstate commerce, rather than a merely incidental effect.

The question had ramifications far beyond guns laws. For example: Laws designed to protect the environment--to protect clean water, clean air and endangered species--all depend on the commerce clause as a source of authority.

And while these laws all have important implications for commerce, a narrow reading of what counts as a "substantial" commercial effect could render them unconstitutional.

The decision: Two of the court's three members upheld the machine gun ban on the grounds that preventing widespread machine gun possession was likely to have a "meaningful" effect on interstate commerce--by preventing violent crime--and that Congress had the authority to act on that basis.

But not Alito. As in Sheridan v. Dupont he used the ambiguity in the case law as a chance to champion the interpretation most in sync with conservative ideology.

In a dissent, he wrote:

We are left with no congressional findings and no appreciable empirical support for the proposition that the purely intrastate possession of machine guns, by facilitating the commission of certain crimes, has a substantial effect on interstate commerce, and without such support I do not see how the statutory provision at issue here can be sustained.
In short, he felt no one had proved a relationship between economic activity on a national scale and machine gun crime, and accordingly, wanted the law struck down.

The majority countered:

Nothing in Lopez requires either Congress or the Executive to play Show and Tell with the federal courts at the peril of invalidation of a Congressional statute.
Lopez required a substantial effect on commerce, they argued, not a scientific study of that effect; Alito was distorting the precedent.

The reaction: Rybar helped persuade the Sierra Club that Alito, "doesn't believe Congress should have the authority to pass laws that protect most of our streams and wetlands--or that citizens have a right to ensure our government enforces Clean Air and Water laws." And that:

We need Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to protect Maine's water and Ed Muskie's legacy--by opposing the nomination of Sam Alito. There's just too much at stake to give Alito a lifetime seat on America's highest Court."
Earthjustice agreed, concluding that Alito "would support Commerce Clause challenges by polluters and developers to public health and environmental laws."

Meanwhile, conservative magazine Human Events noted approvingly, in a discussion of Rybar: "No liberal would have written that dissent. Nor would any judge who fears the scorn of the liberal establishment."

And Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor of The New Republic opined that the views articulated in Alito's Rybar dissent were "far more troubling" than his views on abortion.

But it was the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence that put Alito's dissent in context:

Judge Alito's conclusion that the machine gun ban violates the Commerce Clause...has been rejected by every other federal appellate court that has considered the issue, including the Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits. The Supreme Court has been asked to review lower court decisions on this issue six times and has declined in each case.
Alito was all alone.

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