In their new term, the Supreme Court justices will decide such weighty issues as Chicago’s gun ban, the sentences imposed on juvenile offenders, and an issue near and dear to Washington in the fall: Who can sell an official Redskins jersey.
After a summer break that saw the historic confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the court’s first Hispanic jurist, the Supreme Court begins its new term Monday, likely without major ideological changes. Justice Sotomayor replaces retired Justice David H. Souter, who was considered a reliable vote for the court’s liberal wing, much as Justice Sotomayor is expected to be.
“I honestly don’t think Justice Sotomayor’s arrival at the court is likely to produce any significant difference,” said David Gray, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “I don’t think this term will define Justice Sotomayor’s term as a justice or her role on the court.”
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Among the cases Justice Sotomayor and her colleagues will work on is a challenge to Chicago’s handgun ban, brought in the wake of the court’s historic June 2008 ruling that struck down the decades-old gun ban in D.C. In that case, known as District of Columbia v. Heller, the court held in a 5-4 decision that the ban violated the 2nd Amendment because it prevented D.C. residents from possessing firearms for self-defense.
The decision was the first ruling in the court’s history to declare that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right comparable to the 1st Amendment’s rights of free speech and religion.
There are similar issues in the Chicago case, known as McDonald v. City of Chicago, but at issue is whether the decision in the Heller case - which only directly affected the federal government because of D.C.’s status as a federal enclave - should also be applied to the states and to the city and other local governments they establish.
Lawyers seeking to strike down Chicago’s ban have filed a brief in the case, arguing that “the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that fundamental individual rights may not be violated by any form of government throughout the United States.”
“Accordingly, Chicago’s handgun ban must meet the same fate as that which befell the District of Columbia’s former law,” says the brief submitted by lawyers David G. Sigale and lead counsel Alan Gura, who also argued against D.C.’s gun ban in the Heller case.
Lawyers for Chicago argue that the 2nd Amendment only binds the federal government, saying that “incorporation,” the 14th Amendment doctrine that applies most of the Bill of Rights to the states, does not cover the right to keep and bear arms.
“I think the court is going to indeed show the Second Amendment does apply to state and local laws,” said Robert Langran, a Villanova University political science professor who specializes in constitutional law. “The only thing that could sway it the other way is [that] this is a court that believes in federalism and therefore states’ rights. But I have a hunch they may toss it: I think it’s too much of a prohibition.”
Another case the court will hear this term is likely to bring up the contentious matter of using other countries’ laws to judge issues before U.S. courts.
The case is known as Graham v. Florida, and at issue is whether sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide cases violates the 8th Amendment’s provision against cruel and unusual punishment.
The case centers on Terrence Graham, who was convicted at 16 of being an accomplice to an armed burglary and attempted armed robbery of a restaurant. After violating probation terms while still a juvenile, according to a brief filed on his behalf, Graham was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.