Court Opinions: US Supreme Court Overturns Bump Stock Ban

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Garland v. Cargill

The National Firearms Act of 1934 defines a “machinegun” as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” With a machine gun, a shooter can fire multiple times or continuously by engaging the trigger only once. This capability distinguishes a machine gun from a semiautomatic firearm, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion. 

With a semiautomatic firearm, the shooter can fire only one time by engaging the trigger. Using a technique called bump firing, shooters can fire semiautomatic firearms at rates approaching those of some machine guns. A shooter who bump fires a rifle uses the firearm’s recoil to help rapidly manipulate the trigger. Although bump firing doesn’t require any additional equipment, a “bump stock” is an accessory designed to make the technique easier. The Supreme Court asserted a bump stock doesn’t alter the basic mechanics of bump firing, and the trigger still must be released and reengaged to fire each additional shot.

For many years, the court noted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives consistently took the position that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks weren’t machine guns. But the court explained ATF changed course when a gunman using semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500 more. ATF subsequently proposed a rule that would amend its regulations to clarify that bump stocks are machine guns. ATF’s Rule ordered owners of bump stocks either to destroy or surrender them to ATF to avoid criminal prosecution.

Michael Cargill surrendered two bump stocks to ATF under protest, then filed suit to challenge the rule under the Administrative Procedure Act. Cargill alleged that ATF lacked statutory authority to promulgate the rule because bump stocks are not “machinegun[s]” as defined in by law. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for ATF. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals initially affirmed, but reversed after rehearing en banc. A majority agreed that the law is ambiguous as to whether a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock fits the statutory definition of a machine gun and resolved that ambiguity in Cargill’s favor.

The Supreme Court held that ATF exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a rule that classifies a bump stock as a “machinegun.”

The court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined. Alito filed a concurring opinion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined.

The dissenting justices asserted that to put bump stocks back in civilian hands, the court casts aside Congress’s definition of “machinegun” and seizes upon one that is inconsistent with the ordinary meaning of the statutory text and unsupported by context or purpose. 

Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck. A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle fires ‘automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.’ §5845(b). Because I, like Congress, call that a machinegun, I respectfully dissent.”

Campos-Chaves v. Garland

To initiate the removal of an immigrant lacking permanent legal status from the U.S. who is either “inadmissible” or “deportable,” the federal government must provide them with “written notice” of the proceedings. Two types of “written notice” are described in the law. One is a written “notice to appear,” or NTA, which must set out, among other things, “[t]he time and place at which the proceedings will be held.” The other states that “in the case of any change or postponement in the time and place of such proceedings,” the agency must provide “a written notice” specifying “the new time or place of the proceedings” and “the consequences” of failing to attend.

An immigrant who fails to attend a hearing despite receiving notice “shall be ordered removed in absentia” if the government “establishes by clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence” that “the written notice” was provided and that the immigrant is “removable.” 

Three scenarios permit the rescinding of an in absentia removal order, one of which is when an immigrant “demonstrates that [they] did not receive notice” under the law.

In these consolidated cases (one from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and two from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals), Esmelis Campos-Chaves, Varinder Singh and Raul Daniel Mendez-Colín, each moved to rescind their in absentia order of removal because they didn’t receive proper notice of the removal hearing. In each case, the government provided an initial NTA, but the NTA didn’t specify the time and place of the removal hearing.

Eventually, the government provided each immigrant with a notice of hearing which set out the specific time and place of the removal hearing. None of the immigrants showed up for their hearing, and each was ordered removed in absentia by an immigration judge. Each then sought to rescind the removal order, arguing that they didn’t receive a proper NTA. The 5th Circuit considered and denied one of the petitions, but the 9th Circuit granted the other two.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that because each of the immigrants in this case received a proper notice for the hearings they missed and at which they were ordered removed, they cannot seek rescission of their in absentia removal orders on the basis of defective notice.

The court affirmed the ruling for Campos-Chaves, reversed for Mendez-Colín and vacated and remanded for Singh.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch joined.

The dissenting justices assert that for years, the government has issued NTAs that lack the exact time and date of a noncitizen’s removal hearing. They noted this conspicuous omission has twice before garnered the Supreme Court’s attention in cases concerning a noncitizen’s plea for discretionary relief from removal. They go on to assert that twice over, the high court made clear that when the government issues an NTA, that document must contain the time-and-place particulars that the statute requires.

United States Trustee v. John Q. Hammons Fall 2006, LLC

Two terms ago, in Siegel v. Fitzgerald, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a statute violated the bankruptcy clause’s uniformity requirement because it permitted different fees for Chapter 11 debtors depending on the district where their case was filed. In this case, the court was asked to determine the appropriate remedy for that constitutional violation.

As noted in Siegel, the court explained there are three options: refund fees for the thousands of debtors charged higher fees in districts administered by the U. S. Trustee Program, retroactively extract higher fees from the small number of debtors charged lower fees in districts administered by the Bankruptcy Administrator Program or require only prospective fee parity. 

As in Siegel, this case arises from a case filed in a U. S. trustee district. In 2016, 76 legal entities filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the District of Kansas. In 2018, under the amended fee statute the court later found unconstitutional in Siegel, the debtors began paying higher fees than they would have if their case had been filed in a bankruptcy administrator district. In 2020, the debtors challenged the constitutionality of those fees. The bankruptcy court found no constitutional violation, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, anticipating Siegel, reversed. To remedy the constitutional violation, the 10th Circuit ordered a refund of the debtors’ quarterly fees to the extent they exceeded the lower fees paid in the bankruptcy administrator districts. The Supreme Court vacated that judgment and remanded the case in light of Siegel, and the 10th Circuit reinstated its original opinion without alteration.

The Supreme Court held that prospective parity is the appropriate remedy for the short-lived and small disparity created by the fee statute held unconstitutional in Siegel. 

It reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh joined. Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett joined.

Gorsuch noted in his dissenting opinion that, “Two years ago, we held that this geographically discriminatory treatment violated the Constitution’s Bankruptcy Clause — a provision that, we stressed, was not ‘toothless.’” He went on to note that, “Today, however, the Court performs a remedial root canal, permitting the government to keep the cash it extracted from its unconstitutional fee regime.” 

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