Gun Laws & Legislation

The Judiciary’s Role In Fundamental Transformation

Chris Cox Executive Director, NRA's Institute for Legislative Action
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On Nov. 21, 2013, on a near party-line vote, the Democratic-controlled United States Senate eliminated the possibility of a filibuster on confirmation votes for many federal appointments. The new rule allows nominations for most executive positions and all lower court federal judgeships to move forward in the Senate with a simple majority vote rather than the 60 votes needed to end a filibustered nomination. Although he opposed an identical proposal to change the Senate rules in 2005, President Obama was quick to take advantage of the new rule, now that it could be used to his benefit. In a little more than a year since this rule change, its effect on the federal judiciary has been significant. Nine of the 13 federal courts of appeal now have a majority of judges who were appointed by anti-gun presidents.

While a president’s party affiliation is not necessarily determinative of how his judicial appointees will decide cases, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were behind all the Democrat appointments of currently active federal judges. These presidents are no friends of the Second Amendment, and Clinton and Obama in particular adamantly pursue gun control. To assume this agenda wouldn’t influence their judicial appointments is dangerously naïve.

Many gun owners understand the importance of appointing Supreme Court justices who will faithfully interpret the Constitution, but the importance of lower court appointments, especially to the federal circuit courts of appeal, is often overlooked. Because of the sheer number of federal cases, lower court decisions often set the tone of constitutional debates and establish the rules under which people live for years. Lower federal courts have decided cases on important issues from whether the right to bear arms applies outside the home to the scope of protections provided by federal interstate transportation of firearm laws. The total list of gun-law issues currently pending before lower courts is too long to list here, but these examples illustrate the importance of keeping anti-gun partisans off the bench.

The Supreme Court itself illustrates how a president’s viewpoint can resonate through his judicial picks. In 2010, Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the dissent in the landmark McDonald case, arguing that there is no constitutional right to own a firearm. And earlier this year, Justice Elena Kagan wrote an opinion affirming the conviction of a former police officer for buying a firearm for his uncle, even though both men successfully passed background checks before receiving the firearm. Opinions such as these from the high court only serve to embolden anti-gun judges throughout the federal judiciary.

Federal judges often serve as a legacy for the presidents who appoint them and the senators who confirm them. A federal judgeship is essentially an appointment for life, subject only to impeachment by Congress. Judges often remain on the bench for decades after the presidents who appointed them have left office. As an example of how long this can be, several judges who were appointed by President Kennedy remain in the federal judiciary on senior status (i.e., in a semi-retired role). These judges illustrate that it’s entirely possible for a president to have an impact on the legal landscape for more than a half-century.

As Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told the New York Times earlier this year, the filling of judicial vacancies “will affect America for a generation, long after the internecine battles on legislative issues are forgotten.” One of those “internecine battles” that Schumer was likely referring to was his failed attempt to pass a number of expansive gun control measures out of the Senate last year. He clearly sees the recent spike in appointments—thanks largely to the elimination of the filibuster he supported—as a backdoor opportunity to shape our nation’s gun laws in a way that he has been unable to accomplish through legislation. Anti-gun Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., went even further, commenting on “the need to have people there that are of an ideological like mind.”

The midterm elections have now been decided, but the struggle for freedom continues. The appointment of judges can, as much as anything, contribute to President Obama’s stated goal of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”  This is yet another reason gun owners must stay informed, alert and involved. Now, more than ever, your NRA is here to help you understand where the battle for freedom will be joined.

Chris Cox is the Executive Director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. His column appears in America’s 1st Freedom,  American Rifleman and American Hunter.  Join the NRA and receive a $10 discount on your annual membership and get America’s 1st Freedom, American Rifleman or American Hunter delivered to your door – click here.