The Justice Department lost a U.S. Supreme Court appeal involving a federal gun sentencing law that it told the justices is “of critical importance to the prosecution of violent crime.”
The law is unconstitutionally vague, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a 5-4 opinion issued on Monday that was joined by the court’s four Democratic-appointees. The other Trump appointee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, wrote the dissent.
The government had appealed a lower court ruling striking down the law, which helps secure stiff sentences for people who commit gun offenses in connection with a “crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.”
Gorsuch said the language of the law “provides no reliable way to determine which offenses qualify as crimes of violence and thus is unconstitutionally vague.” He added that, “When Congress passes a vague law, the role of courts under our Constitution is not to fashion a new, clearer law to take its place, but to treat the law as a nullity and invite Congress to try again.”
In his dissent on behalf of himself and the other conservatives on the court, Kavanaugh complained that the court’s majority transformed “the bedrock principle that the Court interprets ambiguous statutes to avoid unconstitutionality … into a principle of interpreting ambiguous statutes to lead to unconstitutionality.”
The court ruled in an appeal filed by Maurice Davis and Andre Glover, who were accused of committing a string of gas station robberies in Texas.
In seeking to uphold prosecutors’ interpretation of the law, the Justice Department said that overturning it would threaten “the outcomes of a great number of current, future, and even past criminal cases.”