JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) — A split Missouri high court on Tuesday revived a challenge by the state’s largest political subdivisions to a controversial new pro-gun law.
“This Court holds Plaintiffs met their burden of demonstrating they are entitled to proceed with a declaratory judgment action because they lack an adequate remedy at law in which to adjudicate their specific constitutional challenges,” Judge George W. Draper III wrote for the majority.
At issue is the Second Amendment Protection Act (SAPA), which Republican Governor Mike Parson signed into law in June 2021.
SAPA declares that certain federal firearms provisions are invalid, penalizes individuals who enforce those laws and imposes civil penalties against state and local law enforcement agencies that employ such individuals.
The city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County filed suit in Cole County Circuit Court shortly before the law was set to take effect. The plaintiffs sought an injunction to block enforcement of the law as unconstitutional.
Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel R. Green, a Republican, ruled against the plaintiffs finding that they have an adequate remedy in two other related cases. Green’s decision prompted the appeal.
The plaintiffs issued a joint statement on the Supreme Court’s Tuesday decision, which sent the matter back to state court.
“Municipalities and law enforcement groups across Missouri are coming together to challenge HB 85, which takes away critical tools we need to protect communities from gun violence,” the statement said. “St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and Jackson County are pleased with today’s decision and look forward to a ruling that overturns this dangerous, blatantly unconstitutional legislation.”
Chris Nuelle, a spokesperson for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, said in a statement, “We will continue our fight to protect and preserve the Second Amendment rights of law abiding Missourians."
Missouri’s Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in anticipation of stricter gun regulations pushed by the Biden administration. It is the latest attempt by Missouri lawmakers to loosen gun laws, including abandoning training requirements and background checks.
Plaintiffs argue the new law presents a conflict regarding current task forces, which are joint ventures between federal and local authorities. They claim the new law would cause lost prosecutions, arrests and gun seizures.
The state argued the plaintiffs’ lawsuit is aimed at striking down the entire law, not seeking guidance on how the law will work.
The high court disagreed with Green that the plaintiffs would receive relief from pending lawsuits field by other entities regarding SAPA.
“Noting these facts from the face of the pleadings does not constitute an opinion by this Court about the merits of those pending lawsuits; however, they likely will not provide Plaintiffs an opportunity to adjudicate their specific constitutional claims due to their procedural posture and, therefore, do not provide Plaintiffs with an adequate remedy at law,” Draper wrote.
Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson and judges Mary R. Russell, W. Brent Powell, Patricia Breckenridge and Robin Ransom concurred with Draper.
Judge Zel M. Fischer dissented.
“Plaintiffs' broad facial challenge, lacking any specific factual allegations, certainly misses the targeted analysis justifying the exceptional relief of declaratory judgment,” Fischer wrote in the dissent. “Should a precise, actual controversy be alleged to exist under SAPA relative to any of the Plaintiffs, a declaratory judgment may be proper, but a general declaratory judgment is not available to speculative ‘situations that may never come to pass.’”
Draper pushed back on the dissent in the majority opinion.
“Although the dissenting opinion asserts Plaintiffs have an adequate remedy at law because nothing bars them from raising their constitutional claims as affirmative defenses in any pending suit or in the future, it fails to recognize or distinguish this Court’s precedent holding a party need not face a multiplicity of lawsuits or wait for an enforcement action to be initiated before seeking a declaration of rights,” Draper wrote.
The Justice Department filed a statement of interest with the state court in 2021, arguing the law is unconstitutional.
Missouri’s Republican leaders have pushed back against the DOJ’s claims that the state’s new gun law illegally conflicts with federal law.
The law states that five categories of federal acts, laws, executive orders, administrative orders, rules, and regulations “shall be considered infringements on the people’s right to keep and bear arms,” as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
Included among the federal laws that Missouri says cannot be enforced are ones requiring the registration or tracing of the ownership of firearms, accessories and ammunition; forbidding possession, ownership, or use of firearms by law-abiding citizens; and ordering the confiscation of firearms, accessories, or ammunition from law-abiding citizens.
The state law carries potential fines of $50,000 per occurrence for political subdivisions or law enforcement agencies that employ an officer who knowingly violates the law.
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