The Catholic University of America

 

3L Shira Lazinger (left) with Student Scholar Series respondent Professor Cara Drinan.

The Punctuation of Justice

"By the end of today, domestic violence will have killed three more women in America."

As an attention-grabber, Shira Lazinger (3L) employed a strong opening line as she began her criticism and dissection of a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on the interpretation of a gun control law that she argued put firearms in the hands of people who aren't supposed to have them.

As the third and final presenter for this academic year in the Columbus School of Law's innovative new Student Scholar Series, Lazinger offered her arguments and research on April 7 in a discussion titled "United States v. Hayes: The Fourth Circuit's Interpretation of a 'Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence' Marks a Step Backward in the Nation's Effort to Keep Guns Out of Hands of Domestic Abusers."

The lengthy title bespoke a complicated legal issue, one that hinged on exacting scrutiny of the wording and even the punctuation of the written law. Various circuit courts have interpreted that law differently, and the issue was very recently settled by the United States Supreme Court.

Lazinger began her presentation before an audience in the Slowinski Courtroom by laying out the facts of the case, one that revolved around a West Virginia statute that bars anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a firearm.

 

In 1994, West Virginia resident Randy Hayes pled guilty to a misdemeanor battery offense after striking his wife. Ten years later, in 2004, police responded to a domestic violence call at Hayes' home. While conducting a search of the premises the police uncovered a rifle. They arrested Hayes for possessing a firearm after being convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence based on the 1994 plea.

Hayes argued that his prior conviction was for simple battery, and thus did not meet the standard for a misdemeanor crime of violence under the state law, which specified that the original offense must involve a "domestic" relationship between the victim and offender.

Hayes' strategy was a success, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed both a lower court ruling and his conviction.

"The Fourth Circuit's holding had very negative effects on the victims of domestic violence that Congress intended to protect," said Lazinger, who argued that it relied on an overly narrow understanding of the language, and even the punctuation, of the statute as written.

Eventually the issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in Feb. 2009, that the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, despite some linguistic ambiguity, suggested that the predicate offense statute need only include "the use of force" as an element of the crime and need not include a "domestic relationship" as an additional element.

Lazinger's analysis of the dense legal issues surrounding the case took about 45 minutes. She then answered questions from the respondent, Professor Cara Drinan, and also took questions from the audience.

Lazinger was introduced by Professor A.G. Harmon, who conceived of the law school's Student Scholar Series as an unusual platform which offers students the opportunity to present their work in a professional, conference-style setting.