JEFFERSON CITY. Mo. (Oct. 23, 2023) – On Friday, the Supreme Court refused to reinstate the Missouri Second Amendment Preservation Act (SAPA) while the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Although it’s not unusual for a higher court to deny a request to overturn an injunction on enforcement issued by a lower court while it considers a case, it isn’t particularly common for the Supreme Court to intervene this early in a lawsuit.

Signed into law in June 2021, SAPA bans the state and its political subdivisions from participating in the enforcement of a wide range of federal gun control measures; past, present, and future. The law rests on the longstanding legal principle known as the anticommandeering doctrine. In a nutshell, this legal doctrine, based primarily on five Supreme Court cases, established that the federal government cannot compel states to use their personnel or resources to enforce federal law or implement federal programs.

In early 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block the enforcement of SAPA. Much of the DOJ’s complaint focuses on these severed federal enforcement relationships, noting that SAPA “severely impairs federal criminal law enforcement operations within the State of Missouri.” In fact, the press release on the lawsuit begins with a statement noting that “Missouri House Bill 85 Makes Enforcement of Federal Firearms Laws More Difficult, Thereby Impeding Law Enforcement Efforts to Combat Violent Crime.” It only mentions potential constitutional ramifications near the end.

However, the Biden administration does concedes the state can choose to stop helping in the enforcement of federal law:

The Missouri Legislature is free to express its opinions about the Second Amendment, and it is also free to prohibit state and local officials from assisting in the enforcement of federal law. [emphasis added]

In a statement after filing suit, DoJ civil division head Brian Boynton said that states “cannot simply declare federal laws invalid.” He went on to assert that SAPA, “makes federal firearms laws difficult and strains the important law enforcement partnerships that help keep violent criminals off the street.”

The federal government won the first round. In March, U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes agreed with the federal government’s view, holding that the law was unconstitutional because it “interferes” with the enforcement of federal gun laws. The judge ordered an end to SAPA’s enforcement.

“While purporting to protect citizens, SAPA exposes citizens to greater harm by interfering with the Federal Government’s ability to enforce lawfully enacted firearms regulations designed by Congress for the purpose of protecting citizens within the limits of the Constitution.”

The word “interfere” is key to Wimes’s reasoning. While he acknowledged the anticommandeering doctrine, saying, “The Missouri Legislature is free to express its opinions about the Second Amendment, and it is also free to prohibit state and local officials from assisting in the enforcement of federal law,” the judge argued SAPA goes further and directly interferes with the federal government’s ability to enforce the law when it declared the law unconstitutional. In effect, he held that it is unconstitutional for a state to call a federal law unconstitutional.

Missouri appealed Wimes’s decision to the 8th Circuit. When the appeals court refused to reinstate the law for the duration of the appeals process, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey asked the Supreme Court to intervene, arguing that the U.S. does not have the “standing,” or legal injury necessary, to bring the lawsuit.

“State governments cutting off state resources for federal enforcement is not an injury; it is a feature of a State’s settled Tenth Amendment authority,” Bailey said.

On Friday, the SCOTUS declined to reinstate SAPA in an unsigned ruling with no supporting reasoning.

Justice Clarence Thomas indicated he would have granted the request.

Neil Gorsuch said he agreed to deny the request in a statement joined by Samuel Alito.

“With the understanding that the district court ‘prohibited’ only ‘implementation and enforcement’ of HB85 by the State of ‘Missouri and its officers, agents, and employees’ and ‘any others in active concert with such individuals,’… I agree with the denial of the application for a stay under the present circumstances,” Gorsuch wrote.

It’s important not to draw any constitutional conclusions from the SCOTUS decision. It simply elected not to interfere with the 8th Circuit’s judgment and allowed its decision to stand while the suit continues. The appeal process still has to play out. It’s entirely possible that the appellate court will strike down some or all of Wimes’s ruling.

Mike Maharrey

The 10th Amendment

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