Relationship of SCOTUS to Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in this case: Please clarify

In this case, what is the relationship between SCOTUS and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts?

Specifically, how and why did SCOTUS even get involved? Did the Massachusetts Court ask for SCOTUS’ input? Or, perhaps, SCOTUS scans the various appellate courts’ decisions looking for instances where the latter repudiates SCOTUS’s findings, precedents, and/or directives? Further, since this was a per curiam opinion, why were only two SCOTUS justices (Alito & Thomas) involved?


Caetano appealed the ruling of the State Supreme Court:

No, the court doesn’t go looking for work – someone has to petition them, and state supreme court rulings can be appealed to them.

The US Supreme Court is involved since the litigation hinges on a federal question (interpretation of the Second Amendment.)

The Supreme Court only hears cases that are appealed to them (or in rare cases when they have original jurisdiction.) They don’t keep tabs on state courts and they don’t act of their own volition. It is common for decisions of state courts to be appealed to the federal system if the appealing party thinks the case involves a matter of federal law to be settled.

Per curiam decisions are generally understood to be unanimous. The opinion may be authored by one or more judges but there will generally be no dissenting or concurring opinions, and the per curiuam decision is held to speak for the whole court.

This was an application for a writ of certiorari, brought by the fellow who lost in the Supreme Judicial court of Massachusetts.

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear appeals from the highest state courts. That’s what the application for certiorari is to do.

The Supreme Court ruled on the matter summarily, because they found the Massachusetts decision clearly contrary to their decision in Heller. They set aside the decision below and remanded it for further proceedings in that court.

It’s a per curium decision, which means the full Court participated, but they don’t identify the particular judge who wrote it.

Alito decided to write a concurrence to the decision and Thomas agreed with him.

Thank you, all. And, thanks byomtoob for the Wiki link. Impressive that there’s already a Wikipedia article on the case.

One of the things that confused me is that I hadn’t been aware that Caetano had appealed the ruling of the State Supreme Court to SCOTUS. The site where I read about the case had made it seem (to me, at least) that the case was still at the level of the State Court (and that’s why I wondered how SCOTUS got involved).

Thanks again.

BTW, was the Massachusetts Court trying to be deliberately obstructionist? It seemed pretty obvious that they had ignored Heller in their reasoning. As Alito said, their reasoning “defied our decision”.

I believe SCOTUS only has jurisdiction if there’s a question bearing on the U.S. Constitution or federal law (or there’s an interstate dispute, or the federal government is a party).

In this case, the question was whether the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment applied to stun guns. So the SCOTUS clearly has jurisdiction.

In a case that’s purely about Massachusetts law, SCOTUS has no jurisdiction to hear an appeal.

Is it possible that the Massachusetts Court was trying to make Scalia (the author of the Heller opinion), and his originalist interpretation, look bad?

What I mean by that is that, by their decision, the Mass Court compelled SCOTUS to explicitly allow for things new to the world since the time of the drafting of the Constitution to be covered by Constitutional guarantees. In other words, stun guns were not conceived of in the 18th century so, by a strict originalist position, they should not be covered by the 2nd Amendment’s protection. Conversely, in abortion cases (or maybe it was in ‘same sex marriage’), didn’t Scalia et al reason that because such things were not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution they therefore deserved no Constitutional protection. Bottom line is that one way or another, he and his allies on the Court were made to appear inconsistent.

Or would a high court never indulge in such machinations?

I think all of this is outside the scope of GQ. I did want to note a summary of the history from SCOTUS Blog where the cert petition can be found. If I am understanding it correctly, the lawyer for Caetano was and is a public defender. That’s impressive and props to him.

It’s possible, but I think the fact that this law has existed in Massachusetts for a while shows they really do want to ban stun guns. And Massachusetts apparently has a reputation for being a difficult place for self-defense weapons.

Sure, the judges might be in the minority who are against those laws. But it raises doubts on any idea that it was merely a political* maneuver.

*for lack of a better word coming to mind at the moment.

The 2nd amendment actually says nothing about “guns” it talks about “arms”. I’m not positive what the original writers thought arms included, but it almost certainly didn’t include stun guns (or nuclear weapons). The latter apparently it is OK to ban from personal use, the former apparently not.

In D.C. v Heller, the Supreme Court held:

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose … Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those ‘in common use at the time’ finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”

So the Constitutional question was whether or not stun guns are in common use ‘at the time’. If ‘at the time’ means when the 2nd Amendment was written, the the answer is depends on whether or not it’s considered similar enough to guns that were available.

If it means presently, there is still a question about whether they are in common use. I don’t know the answer to that though it seems hardly possible they are commonly in (legal) use if they are outlawed – again unless they are similar enough to guns to be covered by their use.

Arms? Oddly, a quick google finds that wearing a sword seems to be generally illegal in many places.

Keeping in mind that we are in GQ, there is no reason to think that an originalist or a textualist believes that only things in existence in 1789 are covered by the bill of rights. The 1st amendment applies to the internet, the fourth amendment to cars and so forth.

Why would you think that Scalia would believe otherwise?

Yep. In fact, you have to go through a background check and get an FID card just to buy pepper spray in MA. So if this ruling strikes down the “No stun guns in MA” law, I assume that means they’re now perfectly legal for anyone to buy? The legislature must be scrambling to put them under one of the existing firearms licenses ASAP.

Scalia was a textualist, not an originalist (though he certainly made up one or two “original” rules of law in Heller).

No, the ruling doesn’t make stun guns legal to purchase in MA. It vacates the prior court ruling on the basis their reasoning was not consistent with controlling precedent. MA law is unchanged until overturned and the state could still ban or restrict stun guns on another basis if it chooses to (the state court). Whether that reasoning will hold up is an open question.

So does that mean that the MA courts will either have to come up with a better answer as to why the 2nd doesn’t apply to this law, or give up and decide the law does violate the 2nd?


Unless, of course, there is a U.S. Constitution question.

Or any federal question at all. Not all federal appeals hinge on Constitutional issues; there could be matters of federal statutes, regulations, or even treaties that come into play in cases before state courts.

Also true. Federal law is supreme when the two conflict.