Did the Supreme Court of Mississippi Turn Courthouses into the OK Corral?
By: Richard Filce
On June 7, 2018, a majority of the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled that judges in a northeast Mississippi Chancery Court District were wrong to ban people with enhanced concealed-carry licenses from taking guns into courthouses. You may have heard or read analysis which describes this as a ruling allowing guns at the courthouse. Alternatively, you may have seen it praised or denounced as part of the larger nation-wide gun regulation debate. In reality, a closer reading of the Opinions, however, shows that a majority of the Supreme Court would quite possibly look more favorably on the issue of banning guns at the courthouse if local judges enacted more narrowly-worded orders.
1. The Background:
The Mississippi Legislature enacted a law in July 2011 saying that people with enhanced concealed-carry licenses may take guns into courthouses but not into “courtrooms.” In November 2011, judges in the 14th Chancery District issued an order banning anyone other than law enforcement officers from having concealed guns within 200 feet of any door to any courtroom. The Order defined “courtroom” to start at the entrance door to the various courthouses in the District.
Perhaps sensing the lack of definition of “courtroom” in the 2011 law, Andy Gipson (then a state representative but now State Agriculture Commissioner) authored legislation in 2016 to clarify that courtrooms included the actual room in which judicial proceedings occur, including jury room, witness room, judge’s chamber, office housing the judge’s staff, or similar room, but not hallways, courtroom entrances, courthouse grounds, lobbies, corridors, or other areas within a courthouse that are generally open to the public for transaction of business outside of an active judicial proceeding. The clarifying legislation, however, died in a Senate Committee.
A resident with an enhanced concealed-carry license, Ricky Ward, challenged the 14th Chancery District judges' ban in Court. When the local Judges upheld their order, Ward sought review by the Supreme Court of Mississippi by seeking a Writ of Prohibition to vacate the order.
2. The Decision:
Justice Michael Randolph, joined in the result by four other Justices, wrote the Opinion of the Supreme Court of Mississippi vacating the lower court order. Justice Randolph held that such an Order “could never be constitutional,” because only the legislature can regulate firearms. In other words, the chancery judges, a part of the judicial branch of government, could not regulate outside of the walls of the courtroom without violating the principle of constitutional separation of powers. Justice Randolph, citing the Webster’s dictionary definition of courtroom, concluded that the definition of courtroom was not ambiguous. In a footnote, Justice Randolph cites the Webster’s definition but acknowledges Justice Chamberlin’s concurring opinion that proceedings of a court of law may require more than one room (see below).
While Justices Chamberlin and Maxwell voted with the five-judge majority, they wrote separately and appeared to express that Judges did have authority to act within certain limits to control firearms. Justice Maxwell cited the “inherent constitutional authority to
secure its courtrooms,” but found this Order was too broad in reaching “non-judicial” hallways, rooms, and offices. Justice Maxwell acknowledged that a courtroom “is not always an easily defined structure,” and stressed Judges should have discretion to define the courtroom to include judges’ chambers, witness rooms, jury rooms, etc. He also stressed that in some courthouses jurors have to walk through public hallways and exit the main doors. “A judge
certainly has the right to deem these areas to be part of the courtroom while court is in
Justice Waller concurred in the result but dissented in part from the majority’s broader holding. He believes a ban may be valid if it is limited to that which is “necessary to secure the courtroom and the efficient disposition of judicial business.” He would look at factors such as “the number of doors in the courthouse and courtroom, how the public enters the courtroom and courthouse, how the judge’s chambers are accessed, how prisoners with court appearances are admitted into the courtroom and where they are held prior to and after court appearances, where witness rooms and jury-deliberation rooms are located in relation to the courtroom, and, finally, whether security resources exist to provide the required physical and electronic security in view of the number of doors and physical layout of the courthouse.” Justice Waller believes the local judges should be given a chance to enter a “modified order to show why gun-carrying restrictions past the courtroom are necessary to provide minimally adequate security for the courtroom.”
Justice Dawn Beam agreed with Justice Waller saying, “I have witnessed firsthand
the volatility that embodies the courthouse in situations where emotions are running
high in even the most reasonable and steadfast citizens among us. Knowing that litigants,
witnesses, and court participants are secure in the sacred halls of the courthouse is imperative to assure ‘justice for all.’”
Justices King and Kitchens dissented. Justice King wrote that it is “reasonable to consider a courthouse hallway to be an extension of a courtroom and that it is "ludicrous to assume that people in heightened states of emotional upheaval would pause to decide where in the building they can be mad and where they cannot."
While the majority reasoned that the chancery judges had violated the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches, Justice King argued that it was the legislators that had infringed on judicial authority by enacting a law that allows concealed weapons in most parts of courthouses.
3. What now?
Unfortunately, the Opinion of June 7 still leaves Mississippi litigants and lawyers wondering what will happen next. The decision was officially a 5-2-2 vote (two judges dissented in part and two dissented entirely). However, as noted above, two of the five justices voting in the majority also indicated they may be open to allowing a more narrowly-worded ban. Therefore, one possibility (I would say probability) is that local judges will respond by writing slightly more narrow firearm bans.
For example, in Adams County there is an order banning firearms on the second floor of the courthouse, which is where all of the courtrooms are located. Such an order may pop up in several districts around the State, as many courthouses are physically set up in this same way (including both Forrest County Circuit and Chancery Court). A recent article in The Natchez Democrat included discussion debating whether such an order would or would not meet with the Supreme Court’s approval. While the Adams County order does not extend to the parking lot (as most Justices agree went too far) , it would ban firearms not only in the courtroom itself, but also in the hallways, restrooms, and offices located on the second floor. In support of the entire second floor being included in the ban, Adams County Circuit Judge Lillie B. Sanders was quoted as wondering how a partial second-floor ban could work: “What are you going to do with it [when you enter the courtroom], leave it in the hallway?”
While Adams County is waiting for a non-binding opinion from the office of the Mississippi Attorney General on the legality of its order, a citizen could still file a lawsuit challenging the order. Of course, the Legislature could step in to pass a revised statute that would clarify the issue and avoid any future litigation. Given the fate of Andy Gipson’s 2016 bill, however, it seems unlikely the political will to take on the issue exists. Therefore, the public can expect to see more of these orders work their way back to the Supreme Court of Mississippi. If (or when) those are challenged, the result may be different.
Clara Turnage (June 9, 2018). Court Officials weigh gun ruling.
Jimmie E. Gates (June 7, 2018). State Supreme Court says judges can't ban firearms from courthouses.
Complete 41-page text of all of the Opinions
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