Early on Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA) vs. New York City. Unfortunately for those hoping for a big decision in favor of gun rights, it seems unlikely.
While I was not able to get a seat in the gallery, based on the transcripts and the SCOTUSblog article, the justices spent most of the time arguing over mootness. Mootness, or whether or not a case still “matters,” has been a central theme of this case. A few months ago, New York City repealed the ordinance that prevented gun owners from transporting their legal firearms outside the city. By trying to render the case moot, NYC was attempting to stop a broader ruling from being handed down.
NYSRPA has made the argument that New York City’s law on transportation was an undue burden on the 2nd Amendment. The rule in question prevented in no small part the “bearing” of arms, even unloaded and in a locked case, outside of the home. New York City, seeking to sidestep this argument, repealed the rule in question. This made the case one of whether or not the plaintiffs still had a right to challenge New York City. New York State then passed a law to prevent New York City from changing the law back. As Justice Sotomayor put it,
[New York City] has thrown in the towel and completely given you every single thing you demanded in your complaint for relief, and you’re asking us to opine on a law that’s not on the books anymore, and one that’s not on the books, not because of necessarily the city did but because the state, a party who’s not a party to this litigation, has changed the law and prohibited them…
The attorney for NYSRPA, Paul D. Clement, argued that even if one takes all of that as given, the case is still not moot. There is a possibility of damages being awarded to the plaintiffs. Generally, that is enough to keep a case alive. Further, there is a precedent for deciding a claim on the merits when a maneuver is made by the government post-cert to moot a case. New York City’s arguments also concerned themselves exclusively with mootness. While Justices Alito and Gorsuch pressed for a debate on the merits, the court spent some 45 minutes of the hour-long arguments going over mootness and devoted 15 minutes or so to a discussion of the merits.
The common wisdom seems to be that SCOTUS will moot the case. Or at most there will be a very narrow decision on the merits. It seems unlikely that this will be a broad ruling. It seems vanishingly unlikely that the court will extend Strict Scrutiny to all 2nd Amendment cases. However, this is by no means a certainty. People often try to read the tea leaves when it comes to the Supreme Court. People are often wrong. Roberts expressed skepticism that New York City was acting in good faith with their repeal of the law in question, and Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas are near certain to vote for an expansion of the Court’s interpretation of 2nd Amendment rights.
If I was a betting man, I’d say that the two most likely options are first, a narrow decision on NYSRPA by the merits, but one that requires remanding the other 2nd Amendment cases currently in Supreme Court Limbo. Or, second, SCOTUS moots NYSRPA and grants cert to another 2nd Amendment case. The fact that SCOTUS has neither granted nor denied cert to (by my count) three different 2nd Amendment cases is the largest factor in my analysis. The Supreme Court is generally very decisive. The only reason I can think of to keep so many cases on similar subjects in limbo is a decision is expected that would affect all of them. This all having been said, the decision won’t come out until sometime next Spring, or possibly not until the summer. Trying to predict Supreme Court decisions rarely goes well, so the only real word is no word.