The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a broad interpretation of a federal law that makes it a crime for people convicted of domestic violence to possess guns.
The court refused to consider a challenge to the law based on the Second Amendment, saying that argument had received only a “cursory nod” in the briefs. Instead, the court considered the meaning of the term domestic violence, with the majority concluding that it encompassed acts “that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.”
The case concerned James A. Castleman, a Tennessee man who in 2001 was convicted of assault in state court for causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. Court records do not say precisely what he did or what injuries the woman sustained.
When Mr. Castleman was indicted under the federal gun law, he argued that it did not apply to him because his state conviction did not qualify as a crime of domestic violence. Though the federal law defines a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as one involving the use of physical force, he argued that the state law under which he was charged did not require proof of such force.
A federal trial judge agreed, saying one could theoretically violate the state law by tricking a victim into drinking a poisoned beverage. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, affirmed the trial court’s decision.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision, though the justices disagreed on the rationale.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for six justices, said that domestic violence must be understood broadly to include “seemingly minor acts.” The word violence standing alone connotes substantial force, she said, but that is not true of domestic violence.
She gave examples of what might qualify as only domestic violence: pushing, grabbing, shoving, hair pulling and “a squeeze of the arm that causes a bruise.”
Since Mr. Castleman had pleaded guilty to having “caused bodily injury,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, the use of physical force serious enough to amount to domestic violence could be assumed.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.
In a concurrence, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that the federal law applied to Mr. Castleman. But he objected to the notion that domestic violence encompassed more acts than violence did, calling that an absurdity “at war with the English language.”
Justice Scalia criticized Justice Sotomayor for relying on “law-review articles, foreign government bureaus and similar sources” for her broader definition. Such sources, he said, “are entitled to define ‘domestic violence’ any way they want.”
“But when they (and the court) impose their all-embracing definition on the rest of us, they not only distort the law, they impoverish the language,” Justice Scalia wrote. “When everything is domestic violence, nothing is. Congress will have to come up with a new word (I cannot imagine what it would be) to denote actual domestic violence.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, issued a separate concurrence in the case, United States v. Castleman, No. 12-1371.