I think the answer is: a lot. The Court handed down three decisions this week with major political implications: (1) Kennedy vs. Louisiana. This ruling struck down Louisiana’s version of Jessica’s law with the broad holding that capital punishment can be imposed only for the crime of murder, not for the rape of a child. (2) District of Columbia vs. Heller. The Court overturned Washington, D.C.’s ban on handgun possession and an accompanying law requiring any firearms that are kept in the home to be disassembled. (3) Exxon Shipping co. v. Baker. The Court substantially reduced lower court judgments for punitive damages against Exxon for the Prince William Sound disaster. Barack Obama has taken a centrist position on the first two cases, Time magazine notes: Obama surprised some observers by siding with the hardline minority of Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito [in Kennedy]. At a press conference after the decision, Obama said, “I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution.” Then Thursday, after Justice Scalia released his majority opinion [in Heller] knocking down the city of Washington’s ban on handguns, Obama said in a statement, “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view.” Obama didn’t leave much of an opening for Republicans to exploit in either statement. However, the big issue in gun-rights cases is whether cities and states can still impose any kind of prohibition on possession of guns. Obama says that the Supreme Court has endorsed “effective safety measures.” But not many. Scalia did say that jurisdictions could ban guns in sensitive areas, such as schools and government buildings. But his opinion establishes a constitutional right to possess handguns at home for self-defense. I expect the question of capital punishment for child rape to be a staple in debates during the upcoming campaign. Very few states allow such a punishment, and most that do are in the South. Capital punishment is not as popular in other sections of the country. I don’t think the expansion of capital punishment is a winning issue in most states, and it is opposed by most advocacy groups in the area of sexual abuse of children. It’s not clear what is left to argue about in the issue of gun control, other than what restraints on possession of firearms can survive constitutional scrutiny. The broad question in a debate would be: Now that the Supreme Court has held that Americans have the right to possess handguns for self-defense, do you favor allowing cities and states to regulate the possession and use of other firearms? Obama has already given the standard answer. The Exxon case may the sleeper in this group. Letting the biggest, richest company off the hook is going to make environmentalists — and a lot of other folks — furious. The decision to limit punitive damages to an amount equal to actual damages appears to be arbitrary. The Republicans have tried to make energy a big issue, but this case is not going to win any friends for the oil industry. The R’s may find themselves on the defensive. The most Republican-friendly high profile case from is the decision that held the Voter ID bill constitutional. It’s a winning issue for Republicans. Democrats had better figure out a way to make it palatable. It’s going to be the law.
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