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Judge blocks California’s fee-shifting provision for challenges to gun laws

The California law was based on Texas' anti-abortion law that the state's attorney general had called unconstitutional.

(CN) — A federal judge blocked a California fee-shifting provision that mimicked Texas restrictions on challenges to its abortion laws and put plaintiffs on the hook for the state's legal costs defending lawsuits over California's gun laws.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who in recent years has ruled against several of California's gun laws, on Monday issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of part of the recent state law. California Attorney General Rob Bonta had declined to defend the law on its merits because both the Texas and California laws, he said, were constitutionally problematic.

The principal defect of the California law, the judge said, was that it threatened to financially punish plaintiffs and their attorneys who seek judicial review of laws impinging of federal constitutional rights.

"Today, it applies to Second Amendment rights," Benitez wrote. "Tomorrow, with a slight amendment, it could be any other constitutional right including the right to speak freely, to freedom of the press, to practice one’s religion, to restrict cruel and unusual punishment, and to be free from government takings without compensation."

A state law that threatens its citizens for questioning the legitimacy of its firearms regulations may be familiar to autocratic and tyrannical governments, according to the the judge, but not American government.

The California law, Senate Bill 1327, was prompted by Governor Gavin Newsom after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block Texas's anti-abortion law. The California bill aimed to copy provisions of the Texas law, which put a bounty on doctors providing abortion, and allows Californians to sue those making, selling, transporting or distributing illegal assault weapons and ghost guns for damages of at least $10,000 per weapon involved.

The law, similar to the Texas law in the case of abortion-rights challenges, also allows the state to recover its legal costs from defending lawsuits over the constitutionality of its gun laws. But, according to Benitez's ruling, California went one step further because even in a successful challenge to California's gun laws, the plaintiff wouldn't be considered the prevailing party and be entitled to seek their legal costs from the state.

California had argued that the challenge to the fee-shifting provision was premature because the state had no plans to enforce it until there was a final determination whether the Texas version was constitutional.

"I want to thank Judge Benitez," Newsom said in a statement. "We have been saying all along that Texas’ antiabortion law is outrageous. Judge Benitez just confirmed it is also unconstitutional. The provision in California’s law that he struck down is a replica of what Texas did, and his explanation of why this part of SB 1327 unfairly blocks access to the courts applies equally to Texas’ SB 8. There is no longer any doubt that Texas’ cruel antiabortion law should also be struck down.” 

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