It was an extraordinary 23-minute-long scene at the Supreme Court this morning as Justice Antonin Scalia read from his majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller and then Justice John Paul Stevens read from his unusually pointed dissent. Both cast aspersions on each other's interpretation of the Second Amendment and relevant precedents, and spectators were left with a lot of reading to do to determine what the justices actually decided. The Court had clearly declared an individual right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment; Scalia said it could be limited, even rattling off the kinds of regulations that might be acceptable. But Stevens, in dissent, seemed to say that the majority's ruling was broader than Scalia was making it out to be.
"Do not accept the summary you have just heard," Stevens said at one point. Earlier, Scalia told spectators they had to slog through 154 pages of opinions to really understand the Court's position. And Scalia said it was "particularly wrongheaded" for dissenters to rely on United States v. Miller, the 1939 case that marked the last time the high court ruled on the Second Amendment.
When Scalia was reading his own opinion Stevens occasionally shook his head in disbelief. And Stevens jousted back. With emphasis on the word "genuine," Stevens said that "a genuine judicial conservative" would not have inserted the Court into the "political thicket" of the gun rights debate as Scalia had done.
Through it all, the rest of the Court seemed either calm or exhausted on this, the final session of the Court's term before it adjourned for the summer. Wakefulness escaped Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg repeatedly throughout the Scalia-Stevens confrontation, and Justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter seemed to be struggling to stay awake at times as well. In fact Stevens, age 88, seemed to be the only dissenter with any spark or vigor. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. smiled broadly as he opened the session, and Justce Clarence Thomas, who often seems bored or disengaged on the bench, seemed unusually animated. At the end of the session Roberts offered the standard thanks for the "superb work" of the Court staff and the "professionalism" of the Supreme Court bar.
And then everyone scrambled to read the hefty opinion. On the Court's ground floor Alan Gura, the lawyer who took on the D.C. gun ordinance and won, was smiling as he waited for a copy of the ruling. "It sounds good what we were hoping for," said Gura. But before going further, Gura said he wanted to read the whole decision. More on the decision later at LegalTimes.com.