Supreme Court weighs NRA First Amendment dispute against New York regulator

Gun Rights

The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments over whether a New York official can be sued for violating the National Rifle Association‘s free speech rights by allegedly urging banks and insurers to avoid doing business with the gun rights group.

Justices heard the NRA’s arguments for its bid to revive a 2018 lawsuit alleging that Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of New York‘s Department of Financial Services, illegally retaliated against the pro-Second Amendment group after the Parkland, Florida, high school mass shooting that left 17 people dead.

At issue is whether Vullo used her regulatory power to force state financial institutions to cut off ties with the NRA in violation of constitutional First Amendment protections. A majority of the court seemed inclined to favor the NRA’s position that the lawsuit could be revived.

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“How do you define when it goes too far?” asked Justice Samuel Alito, a Republican appointee, referring to a scope of actions from a government regulator who is seeking to sway certain private companies to stop working with another private entity.

“This was not about enforcing insurance law or mere government speech,” said David Cole, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who was defending the NRA.

“It was a campaign by the state’s highest political officials to use their power to coerce a boycott of a political advocacy organization because they disagreed with its advocacy,” Cole added.

Neal Katyal, a veteran Supreme Court advocate and a Georgetown University colleague of Cole’s who was representing the regulator, said there was “nothing unusual about a punishment like this.”

Katyal argued in part that the state wasn’t specifically going after the NRA, but that they were rather focused on an illegal insurance product, which critics have described as “murder insurance.” This type of insurance provides liability coverage for gun owners who fire their weapons in self-defense, and it is illegal in New York and some other states.

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Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, typically on separate ends of the high court’s ideological divide, were both curious as to why New York appeared to be targeting other insurance and banking products sold to the NRA, not just the “murder insurance” products.

“You say in your brief this case is ‘not even close,'” Alito asked Katyal, referring to Katyal’s argument that the case is a clear victory for his client. “You stand by that?”

“I do, under the existing law,” Katyal said.

During rebuttal, Cole joked that he agreed with Katyal on one point, saying, “This case is not close.”

The oral arguments came shortly after the justices heard another major case, Murthy v. Missouri, in which the majority appeared skeptical of the arguments by a pair of Republican-led states that the First Amendment bars the government from pressuring social media platforms to remove online misinformation.

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But justices on both sides of the ideological spectrum seemed skeptical of Vullo’s efforts to pressure banks and insurance regulators, signaling that perhaps they might be willing to allow the NRA to revive its lawsuit against her.

A decision in the case NRA v. Vullo is expected sometime before the end of June.

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