In Tyler v. Hillsdale Cnty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, a case sure to draw attention nationwide, the Sixth Circuit held today that “’a prohibition on the possession of firearms by a person “who has been committed to a mental institution,’ . . . violates the Second Amendment.”
The court held that the the plaintiff, who “[t]wenty-eight years ago. . . was involuntarily committed for less than one month after allegedly undergoing an emotionally devastating divorce” could not constitutionally be barred for life from possessing a firearm.
Arguably the most noteworthy aspect of the decision is that the Sixth Circuit applied strict scrutiny to the law, acknowledging that it was “join[ing] a . .. minority view,” and citing only dissents and concurrences in support of its “emergent” position. The Court catalogued but rejected precedent from nine other circuits applying “heightened” or intermediate scrutiny.
The Court acknowledged that it was the first court of appeals to “sustain a Second Amendment challenge to a federal firearms regulation since Heller was decided. The provision in question, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4), bars anyone “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “who has been committed to a mental institution” from possessing firearms for life. This is just one of a laundry list of bans in Section 922(g), which also bans firearm possession by misdemeanor domestic violence offenders, fugitives, and drug users, as well as other classes.
The Court held that, although Heller approved prohibitions on gun possession by the mentally ill, this did not extend to prohibitions on gun possession by those merely “ever previously mentally institutionalized.” The 73 year old plaintiff, Clifford Tyler, had been involuntarily committed 28 years prior, for less than one month, allegedly due to suicide risk. A 2012 psychological evaluation attributed the commitment to a “brief reactive depressive episode” and concluded that there was no evidence of mental illness. In dictum, the Court reluctantly “suppose[d],” that, based on Heller, Section 922(g)(4) was constitutional as to those “adjudicated as a mental defective.”
The Court determined that strict scrutiny was appropriate. It held—alone and in opposition to nine other circuits—that strict scrutiny should be presumed when a “fundamental right” was at stake, and only “downgraded” to intermediate scrutiny for an “expressly indicated” reason. The Court also noted that the Heller majority rejected Justice Breyer’s dissent advocating intermediate scrutiny. Finally, the Court stated flatly that “intermediate scrutiny . . . has no basis in the Constitution.” The Court also attempted to downplay the significance of this choice by describing the choice between intermediate and strict scrutiny as “more important in theory than in practice” and predicting that the choice would not affect the outcomes of similar challenges before other courts. Judge Gibbons, writing to concur, expressed “substantial doubts” about the decision to apply strict scrutiny and pointed out that it was unnecessary to decide the appropriate degree of scrutiny because the claim would have been viable under intermediate scrutiny also.
Applying strict scrutiny, the Court held that Section 922(g) furthered a compelling interest, but that it was too broad. Although it approved the portion of Section 922(g)(4) that prohibited those “adjudicated-as-a-mental-defective” from possessing firearms, it held that the broader class of “persons previously committed to a mental institution” was not sufficiently dangerous. For the latter conclusion, the Court relied on Congress’s decision to establish criteria for optional state “relief-from-disabilities-program[s] for individuals subject to § 922(g)(4)’s prohibition.” The Court read that as a “conce[ssion]” by Congress that “the previously institutionalized are not sufficiently dangerous, as a class, that it is necessary to deprive all class members of firearms.”
This is just a brief recap of the main points. There is much more to say about the Court’s analysis, its many dicta—the opinion discusses similar prohibitions on firearm possession by illegal aliens, domestic violence offenders, persons under 21, subjects of domestic restraining orders, and drug users and addicts—and the many potential ramifications of this decision. Although it is most obviously a Second Amendment decision, its critical analysis of sweeping generalizations regarding mental illness and institutionalization could easily resonate more broadly, making it easier, for example, to challenge policies that bar people with certain mental health histories from government jobs.
Needless to say, the cert petition for this case practically writes itself. We will continue exploring both the Court’s reasoning and the potential effects of this decision in future posts.