Understanding SCOTUS Denials of Certiorari

Gun Rights

On May 20, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in Bianchi v. Brown, a challenge to Maryland’s ban on “assault weapons.”

This denial understandably has many gun owners concerned that the Supreme Court is letting a broad ban on firearms stand in Mayland. These concerns have been exacerbated by news coverage that mischaracterizes the denial as a decision by the high court on the merits of the case. Headlines like this one from Courthouse News:

High court shoots down challenge to Maryland assault weapons ban

Fortunately for gun owners, the Supreme Court did not “shoot down” the challenge, the Court simply decided not to hear the challenge at this time.

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Denying cert in a case is not a ruling on the merits of that case. The decision not to take a case is not an explicit endorsement of a lower court’s ruling. In his dissent in Darr v. Burford (1950) Justice Felix Frankfurter explained,

The significance of a denial of a petition for certiorari ought no longer to require discussion. This Court has said again and again and again that such a denial has no legal significance whatever bearing on the merits of the claim. The denial means that this Court has refused to take the case. It means nothing else.

In the Bianchi case, the Court may just be waiting for the lower court (the Fourth Circuit in this case) to issue a decision on the merits so that the case has a more fully developed record when it reaches the Supreme Court.

The Court also chose not to deny cert in a similar NRA-backed challenge to Illinois “assault weapon” ban. That case is set to be considered again in conference this week.

While the path to Supreme Court review in a case is long and sometime convoluted, gun owners should not be dissuaded by attempts to characterize mere denials of cert as a substantive decision by the Cout.

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