Opinion Recap: Logan
Julian Park, a 3L at Berkeley School of Law, originally wrote this analysis of last Tuesday’s decision in Logan v. US for SCOTUSwiki. Read the rest of her Logan wiki entry here.
In Logan v. US, the issue before the Court was whether the "civil rights restored" exemption provision of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) under the Armed Career Criminal Act applies, and thereby removes from the ACCA's reach, to state court convictions that never deprived offenders of their civil rights. In a succinct opinion delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court unanimously held that the exemption provision does not apply to offenders who retained their civil rights at all times and whose post-conviction legal status remained unaltered by any state dispensation. The Court thus rejected the First Circuit holding in Indelicato and affirmed the Seventh Circuit's ordinary meaning interpretation of "restored."
In reaching its decision, the Court provided five key arguments that defeated Logan's claim that the exemption provision should extend to civil rights retained. First, the Court found that the context of the word "restored" supports an ordinary meaning approach. Under Section 921(a)(20), "restored" appears with "expunged," "set aside," and "pardoned" "“ words that all describe measures by which the government offers differing degrees of relief to the offender's conviction. In contrast, an offender who retains his rights is simply left alone and his status is unchanged.
Second, the Court rejected Logan's absurdist arguments, which in its view failed to account for Section 921(a)(20)'s "unless" clause, which specifies that the exemption will not apply if the dispensation "expressly provides that the [offender] may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms." The "unless" clause applies in many states that restore a felon's civil rights but nonetheless impose or retain his firearm disabilities. Further, the anomalous result in Logan's state, Wisconsin, has been eliminated because Wisconsin no longer punishes misdemeanors by more than two years' imprisonment.
Third, although interpreting the term "restored" to mean "retained" might correct some anomalies within certain states, it would also create wide discrepancies across states. Because Maine, for example, does not deprive any offenders of civil rights, first-degree murders would be treated as crimes for which civil rights have been restored while less serious crimes committed in other states would not. As the McGrath court pointed out, states have considerably different laws governing pardons, expungement, and restoration of civil rights so that anomalies were inevitable consequences of the exemption provision. More importantly, Section 921(a)(20) reflects Congress's dual effort to both encompass state misdemeanors that qualify as predicate offenses under ACCA and defer to a state's dispensation in relieving an offender from post-conviction disabilities. Allowing the exemption to cover civil rights retained, however, would lead to an internal inconsistency: on the one hand, an offender would fall within ACCA's reach if his predicate offenses carried prison terms of over two years, while on the other hand, the same offender would be released from ACCA's reach by virtue of his retained civil rights. Applying the exemption to civil rights retained would thus defeat the first purpose of Section 921(a)(20).
Fourth, treating "restored" to mean "retained" would place the Court in the uncertain role of legislator. The Court reasoned that even if Congress meant the exemption clause to encompass civil rights retained and even if it were assumed that it could repair this oversight, the Court could "hardly divine the revision the Legislature would favor."
Fifth, citing the strongest argument supporting its decision, the Court pointed out the definitional provision to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), which tracks the language of Section 921(a)(20). Section 922(g)(9) outlaws possession of firearms by anyone who is convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. The accompanying definition in Section 921(a)(33)(B)(ii) contains a parenthetical that clearly modifies "civil rights restored" to require the "loss of civil rights." This parenthetical undermines Logan's absurdist argument since it suggests that Congress did in fact intend the word "restore" to not mean "retained."
In sum, the text of Section 921(a)(20), its statutory purpose, and related statutory language in Section 921(a)(33)(B)(ii) provided strong arguments for the Court's unanimous decision to affirm the Seventh Circuit's ordinary-meaning approach in McGrath.