The Supreme Court, building a docket of major issues for the term beginning in October, agreed Monday to decide the constitutionality of laws aimed at potentially dangerous handgun buyers and sex offenders.
The justices said they would examine whether the Brady law, a nationwide requirement that local police make background checks on people who want to purchase handguns, is an improper federal invasion of state and local powers.
At the same time, the high court accepted a constitutional test of state statutes that allow judges to order “sexually violent offenders” confined to mental hospitals - even after they have served prison terms for sexual crimes.
With the addition of the new cases, the 1996-97 court term is shaping up as an important one. The justices have already agreed to examine the validity of requiring English as a state’s official language, and is considering cases on such issues as doctor-assisted suicide and affirmative action in college admissions. The current term is expected to end by July.
The Brady law, which took effect in 1994 after bitter controversy in Congress and strong opposition from the National Rifle Association, was enacted to combat a nationwide “epidemic of gun violence.”
The law provides a five-day waiting period before a federally licensed gun dealer may transfer a handgun to a purchaser.
During the waiting period, chief local law enforcement officers must make a “reasonable” check of official records to find out if the buyer was a felon, a drug addict, a fugitive from justice, an illegal alien, a mental defective, a spouse under a court restraining order, or a dishonorably discharged member of the armed forces. Such a person is ineligible to receive a handgun.
But the Brady law ran into constitutional objections from two Western sheriffs in small counties, who complained of the costs of making background checks and argued that Congress lacked the authority to force them to spend money or do the work. (A law that went into effect in 1996 places new curbs on federal laws that impose unfunded duties on states.)
Sheriff Jay Printz of Ravalli County, Mont., with 30,000 residents, and Sheriff Richard Mack of Graham County, Ariz., with 28,000, said the Brady law’s requirements would take so much time that they would be unable to perform their regular duties.
Appeals court upholds Brady law
Printz said he’d have to pull deputies off patrol and investigations and couldn’t respond to “a domestic abuse in progress, or any number of serious things.”
A California-based federal court of appeals disagreed. By a 2-1 vote, the court upheld the Brady law, describing it as “a minimal interference with state functions” no different from “other minor obligations that Congress has imposed on state officials.”
Sheriffs Printz and Mack, in appealing to the Supreme Court, relied on recent precedents that found certain federal laws or regulations were beyond the powers of Congress to enact.
In a key ruling, New York vs. U.S., the Supreme Court concluded in 1992 that the federal government could not compel the states to enact a law or administer a program. In the New York case, the states were required to run a nuclear waste-disposal program by taking title to the waste and being liable for damages.
The Clinton administration, defending the Brady law, noted that its burdens on local police will be greatly reduced in late 1998, when the federal government is required to set up a national system for checking criminal backgrounds instantly.
In the sex offenders case, the attorneys general of Kansas and 33 states asked the court to review - and uphold - the Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act.
The law provides long-term care and confinement of “a small but extremely dangerous group of sexually violent predators” who are not eligible for ordinary civil commitment because they do not have a recognized mental disease.
Arizona, California, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin have similar laws, which are in various phases of legal challenges. The Wisconsin and Washington laws have been upheld by those states’ Supreme Courts. But in the Washington state case, a U.S. District Court subsequently ruled the law unconstitutional in a habeas corpus proceeding that the state has appealed.
States back predator law
Washington was the first state to enact such a law, in 1990. Kansas enacted its law in 1994. Other states have been paying close attention, and New York, New Jersey and Connecticut joined 30 other states in signing a brief urging the justices to hear the Kansas appeal.
The Kansas law was challenged by Leroy Hendricks, 62, a repeatedly convicted child molester who was committed to a state mental institution in late 1994 as he was about to be released from prison after serving almost 10 years behind bars.
Under the law, a judge may commit such persons only if a jury finds, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are sexually violent predators deemed likely to commit rape, sodomy, sexual battery or sexual offenses with a child if set free.
After a jury found Hendricks to be a sexually violent predator, a state judge ordered him committed to Larned State Security Hospital in central Kansas, west of Wichita.
But the Kansas Supreme Court, splitting 4-3, ruled the law unconstitutional. The guarantee of due process of law allows a state to commit individuals to mental institutions only if they are “mentally ill,” the state court said.
“Leroy Hendricks has an antisocial personality. He is not mentally ill and could not be committed for treatment to protect society,” explained Tyler Lockett, the judge who cast the pivotal vote.
“Hendricks committed sex crimes against children … (He) has now served the criminal sentence imposed by the state and under the law must now be released, even if he has an antisocial personality.”
But the state attorneys general said today’s mental health professionals are able to “identify mental pathologies which predispose particular sex offenders to commit further sexually violent acts” - even if those defects do not fit within “the magic words ‘mental illness.”’
xxxx Supreme Court action Also Monday, the Supreme Court: Ordered a federal appeals court to restudy a Cincinnati charter amendment that denies homosexuals protection against discrimination. Allowed women raped and tortured in the former Yugoslavia to sue Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in the United States for alleged crimes against humanity. Agreed to consider reinstating the federal convictions of a Tennessee judge accused of sexually attacking women in his office. A lower court said freedom from sexual attacks is not a constitutional right. Said it will decide whether police who stop cars for routine traffic violations can order all passengers to get out. Ruled that a federal appeals court went too far when it invalidated all provisions of a restrictive Utah abortion law.