Interlocking Statutes, Statutory Anomalies and Legislative Purpose
posted by Anita Krishnakumar
More on the statutory interpretation front: The Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments in Logan v. United States, a case involving the interplay between multiple federal criminal statutes, state law treatment of convicted offenders, and interpretive chestnuts such as the Absurd Results canon.
Federal laws: (1) Under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), it is unlawful for a person who has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year’s imprisonment to possess firearms. (2) Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1), convicted persons who violate §922(g)(1), and whose prior convictions include at least three violent felonies or serious drug offenses, face a mandatory minimum fifteen-year sentence. (3) 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B) defines “violent felony” as a violent crime that is “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” (4) But, under the amended version of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20), enacted as part of the Firearms Owners Protection Act (FOPA), any conviction that “has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had [his] civil rights restored” does not count as a predicate offense “unless such pardon, expungement, or restoration of civil rights expressly provides that the person may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.” To complicate matters, 18 U.S.C. §921(a)(20)(B) specifies that offenses classified by a State as misdemeanors may qualify as a “violent felony” (and thus as a predicate for a felon-in-possession conviction under § 922(g)(1)) if the misdemeanor is punishable by more than two years’ imprisonment.
State law: Wisconsin law classifies simple battery (causing bodily harm, as opposed to substantial or great bodily harm) as a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Wis. Stat §§ 940.19(1) (2003); 939.62(1)(a) (2000). Wisconsin law does not deprive persons convicted of a misdemeanor of any civil rights or of the right to possess a firearm. Wis. Stat. §§ 6.03(1)(b) (2006); 756.02 (1997); 973.176(1) (2006).
In 2005, Petitioner James D. Logan pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). A Wisconsin district court sentenced him, under the ACCA, to 15 years’ imprisonment because he had three prior state misdemeanor battery convictions punishable by a maximum of three years’ imprisonment. Logan challenged that conviction, arguing that his Wisconsin misdemeanor convictions should be disregarded under §921(a)(20) because they did not result in the loss of his civil rights, thus leaving him in the same position as a felon whose civil rights have been restored. (Civil rights commonly are understood to include the rights to vote, to serve on a jury, and to hold public office). The question before the Court is: Does the “civil rights restored” exemption under §921(a)(20) apply to defendants whose civil rights never were taken away by the State in the first place?
The oral argument in this case was far from a romp through the canons of construction. The plain meaning of “restored” seems clearly to involve “giving something back” that has been taken away, and the Justices appear to be in agreement on that reading. What was interesting about the oral argument was (1) the Court’s focus on the anomalous consequences that the ACCA, in conjunction with FOPA §921(a)(20), creates for different felons both within and across states; and (2) the Court’s seeming lack of concern for the competing statutory purpose arguments made by counsel on both sides.
(1) Which anomaly matters?
Driven by Logan’s argument that refusing to apply the “civil rights restored” exemption to defendants whose civil rights were not taken away would create an absurd result, the Court engaged in some back-and-forth about what consequences the federal-state statutory interplay would create for different classes of offenders. On the one hand, Logan noted that under the government’s (and the 7th Circuit’s) reading, defendants like Logan who are considered less dangerous or blameworthy by a state, and thus are allowed to retain their civil rights under a state’s criminal law, will be treated more harshly under the ACCA than defendants who are convicted of more serious crimes in the first instance, and who accordingly have their civil rights taken away, by the same state (because, according to Logan, the latter often will have their civil rights restored once they have served their sentences). Thus, the statutory interplay would cause the most culpable offenders within a state to be treated less harshly under federal law than less serious offenders within the same state. On the other hand, the government argued that Logan’s proffered reading would produce equally anomalous consequences across states because some states, like Maine, do not revoke convicted felons’ civil rights under any circumstances — even when the felony committed was murder — so that under Logan’s formulation, firearm-carrying felons who previously had been convicted of murder in Maine would be treated better under the ACCA than firearm-carrying minor felons in other states whose civil rights were taken away but not subsequently restored. (So one lurking point of factual disagreement between the government and Logan concerns the circumstances and frequency with which states restore civil rights to convicted felons or misdemeanants).
(2) Which Purpose Matters?
Despite the fact that both sides’ briefs discuss statutory purpose, the Court seemed utterly uninterested in purpose-based reasoning at oral argument. Perhaps the interlocking statutory scheme is responsible, in that it begs the question: Which statute’s/section’s purpose matters most? The government’s brief stresses the statutory purpose of the ACCA, which it asserts was to “keep guns away from all offenders who, the Federal Government feared, might cause harm even if those persons were not deemed dangerous by the State.” See Brief for the United States. Interestingly, it cites not to the ACCA for this purpose, but to a prior Supreme Court decision, Caron v. United States — whose characterization of the ACCA’a purpose now has become part of the statute itself, according to traditional rules of statutory interpretation. Logan, by contrast, emphasizes the statutory purpose of the FOPA, which he argues was to ensure federal deference to state determinations of a convicted felon’s trustworthiness. It is unclear where Logan gets this purpose from; nothing in the preamble or findings of §921(a)(20) / FOPA seems to set forth such a purpose. But assuming that he is correct, it is difficult to know which statute’s purpose to privilege, particularly since the two interlocking statutes bear such conflicting (alleged) purposes. Notably, this is a difficulty that arises often in the related context where a court is called upon to determine the scope of a statutory exception or exemption — i.e., which purpose should control, the purpose of the underlying statute, or the purpose of the exception/exemption? As in the present case, the purpose of the exception is likely to conflict sharply with the purpose of the statute it is designed to limit.
Predictions: In the end, the Court seems likely to chalk the anomalous consequences of the statutory scheme up to legislative oversight or “mistake” (a word used by Chief Justice Roberts during oral argument), and should be loathe to ignore the statute’s plain meaning in order to correct discrepancies that may, at worst, have been produced by poor legislative drafting. (This is particularly true since a fifth federal statutory section, 18 U.S.C. §921(a)(33)(B)(ii), governing domestic violence convictions, explicitly limits the exception for “civil rights restored” to felons whose civil rights first have been taken away under applicable state law — suggesting that Congress may have intended the anomaly in §921(a)(20)). Look for a unanimous, or near-unanimous, opinion in favor of the government.