Friday, July 23, 2010

Section 1983 does not solve all of our problems

I guess you could say that Section 1983 is the one federal law that codifies our democratic society. It lets you enforce constitutional rights in federal court, and it also provides a remedy when the government violates certain federal laws. See how I mentioned "certain" federal laws? That's because Section 1983 does not solve all of our problems.

The case is Torraco v. Port Authority, decided on June 30. I was not aware of this, but 18 U.S.C. 926A lets you bring unloaded guns onto airplanes (in certain instances). In particular, the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Parker and Wesley) says, this "statute ... allows individuals to transport firearms from one state in which they are legal, through another state in which they are illegal, to a third state in which they are legal, provided that several conditions are met, without incurring criminal liability under local gun laws."

Several plaintiffs were arrested for bringing unloaded firearms in checked baggage through various New York airports. They were charged under state law, but those charges were dropped. They now sue state officials under Section 1983, which says that anyone who deprives a person of his rights under the Constitution or federal law is liable for damages, including punitives. Although Section 1983 does not explicitly say so, the courts have interpreted this expansive law to only allow you to enforce some, but not all, federal laws through it. That means that the violation of some federal laws does not entitle you to any remedies.

This gun law is not among the laws that you can enforce through Section 1983. The plaintiffs have no remedy. The legal standard for answering this question is found in Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329 (1997), which says, among other things, that a federal law can be enforced through Section 1983 if "the right assertedly protected by the statute is not so vague and ambiguous that its enforcement would strain judicial competence." This gun law fails that test. The law is vague, for instance, in that it provides the police without any guidance to ascertain whether the air traveler violated the gun transport law. As the law is difficult to apply, under Blessing, the Court says that civil liability under the statute may chill its enforcement and we presume that Congress did not intend it to predicate any Section 1983 lawsuits.

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