On a historic day for the Supreme Court of the United States, one justice stepped down after more than three decades as his
successor began her confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
But not before several landmark rulings came down this morning, including a highly anticipated intellectual property case
and another from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that extends the Second Amendment gun rights to states and local governments.
By a 5-4 vote in the 214-page opinion in Otis McDonald, et al. v. City of Chicago, et al., No. 08-1521, the justices
ruled against handgun bans in the Chicago area but signaled that some limitations on the Constitution's "right to
keep and bear arms" could survive legal challenges.
The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and
the four liberals opposed – Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the majority, while on his final day with the court
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented. Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court, saying that the Second Amendment right “applies
equally to the federal government and the states.”
This is an expansion of the right to keep and bear arms that the court recognized as applying against only the federal government
two years ago in D.C. v. Heller, in which justices struck down the Washington, D.C., handgun ban.
“It cannot be doubted that the right to bear arms was regarded as a substantive guarantee, not a prohibition that could
be ignored so long as states legislated in an evenhanded manner,” Justice Alito wrote.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer predicted far-reaching implications and said that what the majority relies on is “at
most ambiguous” and that this decision could change the law in up to all 50 states.
Aside from McDonald, the SCOTUS also ruled on other cases such as intellectual property case Bilski v. Kappos,
No. 08-964. Justices unanimously agreed with the Federal Circuit in affirming a lower court decision, which affirms a rejection
of that specific business patent but not ruling more generally about whether those types of business patents are allowed.
As a result, this litigation that many IP attorneys were describing as "the IP case of the past two decades" wasn’t
as landmark as some expected.
The court's majority said business methods were not categorically excluded from patent protection. Justice Anthony Kennedy,
writing for the majority, declined to adopt “categorical rules that might have wide-ranging and unforeseen impacts,”
and chose instead to decide the case narrowly.
“With ever more people trying to innovate and thus seeking patent protections for their inventions, the patent law
faces a great challenge in striking the balance between protecting inventors and not granting monopolies over procedures that
others would discover by independent, creative application of general principles,” he wrote. “Nothing in this
opinion should be read to take a position on where that balance ought to be struck.”
Though all agreed with the decision, other justices disagreed on the rationale. Four justices, led by Justice Stevens, would
have held that methods of doing business are not patentable.
“The scope of patentable subject matter … is broad. But it is not endless,” he wrote.
After the court handed down those decisions, Justice Stevens retired after almost 35 years on the court. His potential successor,
Solicitor General Elena Kagan, began her confirmation hearings at noon before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ranking Republican
members said they hadn’t ruled out the possibility of using a filibuster to stall a vote on her nomination.