Court to rule on key part of Brady gun-control law Congress' power to order local police to check gun buyers is at issue

June 18, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court took on the volatile issue of gun control yesterday, agreeing to rule on the constitutionality of a key part of the Brady Act.

At issue is whether Congress had authority to order local police and sheriffs to do background checks on people who want to buy guns. The law imposes a five-day waiting period on gun buyers while police investigate.

The court also moved into a constitutional controversy over how far states may go to isolate violent sex offenders who have finished their prison terms. At issue is the constitutionality of a Kansas law, although Maryland and 32 other states have urged the court to look at the problem as nationwide in scope.

Those and other cases that the court agreed yesterday to hear will be decided next year. They will come up for a hearing in January.

The gun control dispute involves the Handgun Violence Prevention Act, passed by Congress three years ago to try to curb access to handguns by people with criminal records. Under the law, a national criminal background check system must be set up by Nov. 30, 1998.

In the meantime, the law requires handgun dealers to delay any sales for five days, while local police make "a reasonable effort" to determine whether the buyer is legally entitled to buy a gun.

The requirement that local law enforcement officials make that effort is at the center of the cases before the court. Lower courts have split on the constitutionality of that rule.

The dispute gives the Supreme Court a chance to clarify a ruling it issued 14 months ago that raised constitutional doubts about Congress' power to make guns a federal issue. In that ruling, the court struck down a law that criminalized gun possession near a school.

In two new appeals the court will hear, sheriffs in two Western counties -- one in Arizona, one in Montana -- argued that Congress lacks power to impose on local police the duty of checking out the possible criminal records of people seeking to buy handguns. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, rejected that challenge last fall.

Sex-offender laws

The Kansas sex-offender law the court agreed to review is one of six such laws passed by states. Many other states told the court that they are considering passing similar restrictions and want a clear-cut ruling on their constitutionality.

When a sex offender nears the end of a prison term, the Kansas law sets up a separate procedure, with the aim of identifying those likely to commit similar crimes in the future and then confining them indefinitely.

Although the law requires those people to get treatment, the court was told that because there is no known treatment for the disorders that "sexual predators" may be suffering, confinement would last indefinitely.

The Kansas Supreme Court struck down the law, noting that it did not restrict this special form of confinement to people who were actually mentally ill. Without that kind of finding, the state court said, long-term confinement is unconstitutional.

In another case involving sex crimes, the court agreed to decide whether the Justice Department may use an 1874 civil rights law to prosecute state and local government officials for sexual assault.

The law at issue is the one that federal prosecutors used against Los Angeles police involved in the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King in 1991.

The Justice Department told the court that the law "for decades has been the primary tool for bringing to justice state officials who engage in the most egregious abuses of official power, including rapes, beatings, and other unjustified assaults."

A federal appeals court struck down the use of that law against sexual assaults by public officials. It said Congress never intended the law to be applied in such cases.

Abortion restrictions

Splitting 5-4, the court ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider the constitutionality of a 1991 law passed by Utah with the aim of banning nearly all abortions. The lower court found the part of the law banning abortions before 20 weeks of pregnancy unconstitutional under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that partly reaffirmed the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision.

The lower court also nullified an even more restrictive ban on abortions after 20 weeks, saying that had to fall, too, because the legislature wanted all of the law to be in force, not just part of it. Yesterday, the court majority ordered a new look at the second part of the lower-court ruling. The majority said that courts generally should assume that, if a state is barred from enforcing some of its abortion curbs, the state wishes to enforce whatever can be salvaged.

The action leaves the post-20-weeks restriction open to a new challenge by clinics and doctors. The law is not being enforced while the case continues in courts.

Gay-rights laws

In a brief order, over three justices' dissents, the court told a federal appeals court to take a new look at the constitutionality of a Cincinnati ordinance that bars local government agencies from taking any action to protect the rights of homosexuals.

That provision was similar to a Colorado state constitutional amendment that the court struck down by a 6-3 vote last month. In that ruling, the court said the Constitution assures homosexuals a measure of equality in public life.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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