The Potowmack Institute

The State of Alabama as amicus curiae
US v. Timothy Joe Emerson
US Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit
Filed December 20, 1999

The Potowmack Institute's amicus brief and other briefs in this case are provided at .../emeramic.html

The District Court's Opinion Memorandum is at


In Alabama, "[a]ll litigation concerning the interest of the state, or any

department of the state, shall be under the direction and control of the Attorney

General." Ala. Code § 36-15-21 (1999). Attorneys General have broad powers to

protect the interests of the people, see, e.g., State of Florida ex rel Shevin v. Exxon

Corp., 526 F.2d 266, 268 (5th Cir. 1976) and Alabama's Attorney General has

"wide discretion in determining what actions he should take in protecting what he

conceives to be the best interest of the State of Alabama and the citizens thereof."

Mobile Oil Corp. v. Kelley, 353 F. Supp. 582, 586 (S.D. Ala. 1973).

The State of Alabama clearly has an interest in protecting the civil rights of its

citizens. As with forty-three other States (including Texas), the civil right of the

people of Alabama to keep and bear arms is protected by the Alabama Constitution:

"That every citizen has a right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state."

Ala. Const. art. I § 26 (adopted 1819, art. I,  23; "defence" changed to "defense"

in 1901). The State of Alabama has carefully limited its exceptions to the right to

keep and bear arms. See Ala. Code § 13A-11-72 (1999).

In this case, the federal government maintains that a boilerplate restraining

order entered in a state court divorce proceeding, supported by no judicial finding of

Page 11
[page numbering from original brief]

past misconduct or future likelihood of dangerousness, automatically divests a

citizen of both his state and federal constitutional right to bear arms. Under the

Alabama Protection From Abuse Act, Ala. Code §§ 30-5-1 et seq. (1998), some

finding of abuse, as defined in Section 30-5-2(a)(1), is required for entry of a

protective order. However, judges in divorce and juvenile proceedings in Alabama

retain discretion to issue protective orders without the formal findings required

under the Protection From Abuse Act. The State of Alabama has a substantial

interest in ensuring that its citizens are not deprived of fundamental rights without

some finding of past fault or future dangerousness.


The statute at issue in this case, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8) (1994), was clearly

aimed at disarming those who pose a threat to the safety of their intimate partners or

their children. The text and legislative history of the statute make clear that its focus

is on persons who are in fact dangerous. Yet, in this case the government contends

that the statute applies to a pro forma order entered in a Texas divorce proceeding,

where no evidence or finding of dangerousness is required under Texas law. Thus,

under the government's view, Section 922(g)(8) is utterly indifferent to the reason

for entry of a restraining order; the mere fact of its entry engenders a federal

Page 12

criminal ban on firearm possession. Under this view of the statute, restraining

orders entered by routine in divorce proceedings, or by mutual consent, with no

evidence of spousal abuse or danger, convert law-abiding firearms owners into

felons, subject to penalties of up to ten years in the federal penitentiary.

The government's interpretation of Section 922(g)(8) suffers from serious

textual difficulties. First, it renders Subsections (B) and (C)(ii) redundant to each

other, a cardinal sin of statutory interpretation. See Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154,

173 (1997). Second, it renders Subsection (A)'s requirement of "actual notice" and

an "opportunity to participate" at a hearing quite meaningless, because nothing need

be shown at the hearing and no findings need be made. Third, it renders Subsection

(C)(i)'s requirement of "a finding that such person represents a credible threat" to a

spouse or child utterly futile, by reading the very next clause to authorize

prosecution when there has been no finding of any kind.

The court below correctly concluded that if Section 922(g)(8) is interpreted in

this perverse manner, the statute constitutes a sweeping and arbitrary infringement

on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Before addressing the

Second Amendment issue, however, this Court must seek an interpretation of

Section 922(g)(8) that renders it free from constitutional doubt. Edward J. De

Page 13

Bartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council, 485 U.S.

568, 575 (1988). Not surprisingly, such an alternative interpretation not only exists,

but is very nearly compelled by the statute's structure, purpose, and legislative

history. The requirement of a finding is necessarily implied in Congress's clear

specification that "a hearing" must be held, at which the person must have an

"opportunity to participate." 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8)(A) (1994). Subsection (A)

therefore should be read to require the opportunity to participate in a legally

meaningful hearing— where the issue of dangerousness is tested against a legal

standard and addressed by a judicial finding.

Similarly, subsections (C)(i) and (C)(ii) should be read in harmony, rather

than in opposition. Subsection (C)(i) by its terms applies only to those situations in

which the court order itself "includes" the requisite finding. Subsection (C)(ii)

should be read to complement (C)(i) by addressing that class of cases in which the

requisite finding is embodied in a transcript or other document outside of the

restraining order itself. This is the only reading of Section 922(g)(8) that gives

effect to every portion of the statute and is consistent with its purpose as expressed

in the legislative history.

Page 14

Not only is this the best overall interpretation of the text and history of the

statute, it is also required by two fundamental rules of statutory construction. First,

it allows the Court to avoid adjudication of an extremely serious constitutional issue.

See Bland v. United States, 299 F.2d 105 (5th Cir. 1962) (implying element into

federal criminal statute to avoid constitutional difficulties); United States v.

Boerner, 508 F.2d 1064 (1975) (same). Second, it is consonant with the rule of

lenity, which teaches that where a criminal statute is ambiguous, the more narrow

approach must be chosen. United States v. Cisneros, 194 F.3d 626 (5th Cir. 1999).

Whether because the statute as interpreted by the government violates the Second

Amendment, or because this Court refuses to adopt a construction of the statute that

applies to restraining orders unsupported by any judicial findings, the judgment

below should be affirmed.


Page 15

Under the view of the statute advocated by the government and assumed by

the court below, a person can be deprived of the right to receive or possess any

firearm based merely upon the fact that he or she is involved in the normal incidents

of a divorce proceeding. Thus, for purposes of the legal issues presented by this

appeal, any citizen may lose the right to possess a firearm simply by reason of being

party to a divorce proceeding, no matter how ample his or her firearms training (a

police officer) or how impeccable his or her character (a minister). As District

Judge Cummings pointedly noted below: "Under this statute, a person can lose his

Second Amendment rights not because he has committed some wrong in the past, or

because a judge finds he might commit some crime in the future, but merely because

he is in a divorce proceeding." United States v. Emerson, 46 F. Supp. 2d. 598, 611

(N.D. Tex. 1999).

As appellee's brief amply demonstrates, no Supreme Court or Fifth Circuit

precedent supports such a sweeping and unjustified prohibition of firearm

possession by law-abiding citizens. See also Brief of the National Rifle Association

as Amicus Curiae. This arbitrary firearms disability cannot be justified as a

restriction on certain types of weapons that are particularly unsuited to legitimate

civilian use. See, e.g., United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939); United States

Page 16

v. Johnson, 441 F.2d 1134 (5th Cir. 1971); United States v. Williams, 446 F.2d 486

(5th Cir. 1971). 1 Nor can it be defended by reference to statutes that deprive

convicted felons— persons found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of serious

violations of law— of the ability to possess firearms. Cf. Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980).

As the court below correctly recognized, the statute as construed by the

government requires an examination of first principles— the origins and meaning of

the Second Amendment, the scope of the individual right it creates, and the

justifications necessary before that right may be infringed. That court correctly

concluded that if the Second Amendment is to have any meaning at all, this statute,

as interpreted by the government, cannot pass constitutional muster. In response,

the government urges the radical proposition that the Second Amendment creates no

individual right, or that if it does create such a right, it may be infringed wherever a

"rational basis" exists for the restriction. Gov't Br. at 36. The government would

have this Court literally denude one provision of the Bill of Rights of all legal


Page 17

Before this Court ventures into this largely uncharted constitutional territory,

it has a judicial duty to consider the possibility that the prosecution has overreached

in this case and that Congress never intended Section 922(g)(8) to cover restraining

orders unsupported by any finding of past or future dangerousness. In the past,

Congress has explicitly acknowledged and shown respect for Second Amendment

principles in its regulation of firearm ownership. See, e.g., Freedmen's Bureau Act,

14 Stat. 176-77 (1866); Property Requisition Act § 1, 55 Stat. 742, 742 (1941); Gun

Control Act of 1968 § 101, 82 Stat. 1213, 1213-14 (1968) (codified at 18 U.S.C. §

921 note); Firearm Owner's Protection Act § 1(b), 100 Stat. 449, 449 (1986)

(codified at 18 U.S.C. § 921 note). This Court should not lightly assume that

Congress suddenly intended to jump off the constitutional precipice by enacting a

provision that is massively overbroad in its prohibition of firearms ownership.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly insisted that courts must, "where possible,

interpret[] congressional enactments so as to avoid raising serious constitutional

questions." Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 203 (1991) (citations omitted).

"[T]he elementary rule is that every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in

order to save a statute from unconstitutionality." Edward J. De Bartolo Corp., 485

U.S. at 575 (quoting Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 657 (1895)). This rule

Page 18

arises "out of respect for Congress, which we assume legislates in the light of

constitutional limitations." Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 191 (1991).

As we demonstrate below, that principle is applicable in this case. The

government's wooden interpretation of the statute violates well-settled canons of

statutory construction. Once the court looks to the text and structure of the entire

statute, as well as its legislative history and purpose, a reasonable alternative

construction emerges— one that gives meaning to the entire text and avoids

conflicting with the Second Amendment.

The statute at issue in this case makes the receipt or possession of any firearm

unlawful for any person:

Page 19

18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8) (1994). As the government reads this statutory provision,

Subsection (c)(ii) does not require a judicial finding, or even the submission of any

evidence, that the party to be restrained may be dangerous. All that need be shown

under Subsection (C)(ii), according to the government, is the existence of a

restraining order that prohibits certain conduct; upon such a showing a complete

federal criminal prohibition on all firearm possession automatically and immediately

ensues. This reading of the statute creates three insuperable textual problems.

First, it renders Subsection (B) a nullity. Subsection (B) already requires

proof of the existence of a court order that "restrains such person from harassing,

stalking, or threatening an intimate partner of such person or child of such intimate

partner or person, or engaging in other conduct that would place an intimate partner

in reasonable fear of bodily injury to the partner or child." 18 U.S.C. §

922(g)(8)(B) (1994). If Subsection (C)(ii) requires only proof of the

existence of a restraining order prohibiting a narrower class of conduct— involving "the use,

attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against such intimate partner or

Page 20

child"— then it is completely redundant to Subsection (B) and serves no

independent purpose in the statutory scheme. 2 Interpreting Subsection (C)(ii) to

require proof of the same type of restraining order addressed by Subsection (B),

with nothing more, violates "the cardinal principle of statutory construction" that the

court must "give effect, if possible to every clause and word of a statute . . . rather

than to emasculate an entire section." Bennett, 520 U.S. at 173 (citations omitted).

Accord United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 36 (1992) (rejecting

statutory interpretation that "violates the settled rule that a statute must, if possible,

be construed in such fashion that every word has some operative effect").

Second, the government's reading of the statute renders the requirement of

Subsection (A) that there be "a hearing of which such person received actual notice,

and at which such person had an opportunity to participate," a virtual nullity. It is

elemental that a "hearing" requires some issue to be decided, some legal standard to

be met. See Black's Law Dictionary 721 (6th ed. 1990) (defining "hearing" as "[a]

proceeding of relative formality (though generally less formal than a trial), generally

Page 21

public, with definite issues of fact or law to be tried, in which witnesses are heard

and evidence presented") (emphasis added). Indeed, the concepts of "actual notice"

and an "opportunity to participate" have meaning in the context of a proceeding

only if something must be shown if some legal standard must be met. As the

Supreme Court has made clear, the due process requirements of notice and an

opportunity to be heard include awareness of the legal standards or criteria to be

applied and findings based upon those standards. See, e.g., Goldberg v. Kelly, 397

U.S. 254, 268 (1970) (due process notice must include legal and factual bases for

proposed action); Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 489 (1972) (due process in

parole hearing must include "a written statement by the factfinders as to the

evidence relied upon and reasons for revoking parole"). Accord Mullane v. Central

Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314 (1950); Ohio Bell Tel. Co. v. Public

Utilities Comm'n, 301 U.S. 292, 300-02 (1937). If Subsection (C)(ii) is interpreted

to reach restraining orders entered for any reason or no reason at all, Subsection

(A)'s requirements of notice and opportunity to participate in a hearing are rendered

an empty formality.

Finally, the government's reading of the statute renders it capricious with

respect to the need for a judicial finding. Subsection (C)(i) by its terms requires a

Page 22

finding, but Subsection (C)(ii), according to the government, completely eliminates

that requirement. As interpreted by the government, the statute literally requires the

government either to prove the existence of a restraining order supported by a

finding (under Subsection (C)(i)) or, in the alternative, to prove the existence of a

restraining order without any finding (under Subsection (C)(ii)). We know of no

other federal criminal statute that defines an element of the offense in one subsection

and then defines it away in the next.

Contrary to the government's textually problematic interpretation of Section

922(g)(8), the legislative history makes clear that Congress intended the statute to

apply only to restraining orders entered on the basis of some clear showing that the

party to be restrained represents a danger of domestic abuse. The three key

legislative proposals that were precursors to Section 922(g)(8) all focused directly

on a past history of domestic violence or a likelihood of domestic violence in the

future. Furthermore, the statements of the sponsors of these proposals leave no

Page 23

doubt that restraining orders entered without reference

to proof of domestic abuse were not within the ambit of the legislation. 3

Section 922(g)(8) was enacted as Section 110401 of the Violent Crime

Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 103 Pub. L. No. 322, 108 Stat. 1796

(September 13, 1994), commonly referred to as the "1994 Crime Bill." As signed

by the President, the section of the public law containing Section 922(g)(8) was

entitled: "Prohibition Against Disposal of Firearms to, or Receipt of Firearms By,

Persons Who Have Committed Domestic Abuse." 108 Stat. at 1797 (emphasis

added). Thus, the title of the legislation itself makes clear that it was not intended to

apply to citizens with no past history of domestic abuse. Cf. Almendarez-Torres v.

United States, 523 U.S. 224, 233 (1998) ("We also note that the title of a statute

and the heading of a section are tools available for the resolution of a doubt about

the meaning of a statute.") (internal quotations and citations omitted). And the

legislative history abundantly confirms what the title of the statutory text makes


Page 24

On February 24, 1993, Representative Patricia Schroeder introduced her

version of the Violence Against Women Act, H.R. 1133. As introduced, the bill did

not contain any provision addressing firearm possession. In the Subcommittee on

Crime and Criminal Justice the following provisions were added:

Page 25

H.R. 1133, 103d Cong. §§ 232-233 (1993) (emphasis added).

Representative Schroeder's proposal enjoyed bipartisan support in the House,

with 223 named cosponsors. 139 Cong. Rec. 31,294 (Nov. 20, 1993) (remarks of

Rep. Schroeder). Floor statements during the House debate on H.R. 1133 focused

on statistical and anecdotal evidence regarding clear cases of domestic violence or

abuse. See, e.g., 139 Cong. Rec. 31,290 (Nov. 20, 1993) (remarks of Rep. Brooks)

("This bill is a comprehensive, multifaceted, and long-overdue response to crimes of

violence and abuse suffered by women across the country."); id. (remarks of Rep.

Sensenbrenner) ("Every hour, 10 women are raped, 240 women are beaten by their

husbands or boyfriends."); id. at 31,291 (remarks of Rep. Olver) (discussing case

where abused spouse obtained 13 separate restraining orders against a known

abuser); id. at 31,294 (remarks of Rep. Schroeder) ("It's the extent to which

families, especially our children are experiencing violence in their everyday lives,

Page 26

however, which is prompting women's activism against violent crime and gun


H.R. 1133 passed in the House by a unanimous vote of 421-0. id. at 31,337.

It was sent to the Senate on November 20, 1993, where it was referred to the Senate

Judiciary Committee. No further legislative action was taken on H.R. 1133 itself,

but language identical to §§ 232-233 was included in the final House version of the

Crime Bill, H.R. 3355, and was one of three similar provisions that went into the

House-Senate Conference on the 1994 Crime Bill.

Three important points emerge from Representative Schroeder's bill. First,

its prefatory legislative findings clearly focus on "individuals with a history of

domestic abuse. . ." H.R. 1133, Sec. 232(3). This point is emphasized by the

bipartisan statements throughout the floor debate focusing on domestic abuse and on

the failure of the legal system to stop known abusers. Second, H.R. 1133 clearly

requires that, in order to qualify under federal law, a domestic restraining order must

be supported by a judicial finding. Third, the Schroeder bill's allowance for

"constructive notice" was rejected in the final version of § 922(g)(8), which requires

"actual notice" of the hearing on the restraining order. Each of these facts lends

strong support to the proposition that Congress intended to address restraining

Page 27

orders entered because of some finding relating to domestic abuse. That is

certainly what the House of Representatives unanimously voted for in H.R. 1133.

Two Senate precursors to Section 922(g)(8) arose in the context of floor

debate over the omnibus crime bill, S. 1607, which was introduced by Senator

Biden on November 1, 1993. As introduced in the Senate, Senator Biden's bill did

not have any provisions analogous to Section 922(g)(8).

Senator Paul Wellstone proposed amendment No. 1123, to S. 1607, which provided in relevant part:

Page 28

(3) individuals with a history of domestic abuse should not have easy access to


Page 29

139 Cong. Rec. 28,514 (Nov. 10, 1993) (emphasis added).

On November 10, 1993, Senator Biden presented this amendment on behalf

of Senator Wellstone as Amendment No. 1179 en bloc with nine other amendments

to the 1994 Crime Bill. The Wellstone amendment passed in the Senate on that date

by voice vote, without debate, and thus became the first domestic abuse firearms

provision contained in the 1994 Crime Bill.

Page 30

Senator Wellstone had earlier characterized his legislation as "a bill to take

guns out of the hands of people who are violent toward their spouse or children."

139 Cong. Rec. 25,490 (Oct. 20, 1993) (statement of Sen. Wellstone) (emphasis

added). He described the effect of his proposal as follows:

id. (emphasis added).

Thus, both the text of the Wellstone amendment and its sponsor's statement

indicate that it was aimed either at persons convicted of domestic abuse or, at an

absolute minimum, persons formally accused of domestic abuse. The text requires

an order issued in a case involving "the use, attempted use, or threatened use of

physical force" or "a substantial risk that physical force" would be used. 139 Cong.

Page 31

Rec. 28,514 (Nov. 10, 1993). Senator Wellstone's statement indicates that the

restraining order must be entered "because of threatened abuse." Even under

Senator Wellstone's approach, which was not the approach ultimately adopted by

Congress, the case must involve domestic abuse. Thus, under the Wellstone

proposal, a routine order entered in a divorce proceeding would not have qualified

under federal law to disable its subject from firearms possession.

C. Chafee-Hatch Precursor to Section 922(g)(8).

The other amendment to the Senate version of the crime bill that addressed

firearms and domestic violence was offered by Majority Leader Dole on behalf of

Senators John Chafee and Orrin Hatch. This amendment, No. 1169, like the

Wellstone amendment, was proposed en bloc with other amendments, was not debated on

the floor, and passed by a voice vote. It was added to S. 1607 as

Section 301 under Title III ("Firearms") and prohibited the receipt or possession of

firearms by any person:

Page 32

conduct that would place another person in fear of bodily injury or the

effect of which conduct would be to place a reasonable person in fear

of bodily injury; and

B) whom the court issuing the order finds under this subsection to

represent a credible threat to the physical safety of that other


S. 1607, 103d Cong. § 301 (1993) (emphases added).

Two key points are readily apparent from the text of the Chafee-Hatch

proposal. First, it contains the due process language requiring "actual notice" as

opposed to the "constructive notice" contained in the Schroeder proposal. Second,

it clearly requires a finding, but unlike the Schroeder bill, it does not require that the

finding be included in the restraining order itself.

Senator Chafee's remarks in support of his approach are very specific in

discussing the fact that only restraining orders backed by a judicial finding of

dangerousness should result in a federal prohibition of firearm possession: "My

amendment adds to this category [of persons prohibited under 922(g)] those

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individuals who are subject to a court restraining order for harassing, stalking,

threatening, or engaging in other such conduct; and whom the court has deemed a

credible threat to another person's safety." 139 Cong. Rec. 30,578 (Nov. 19,

1993) (emphasis added). Senator Chafee noted that "it is not easy for women to

receive a restraining order," and that his amendment was intended to "ensure that a

person whom the court says is a threat may not have a gun during the time that he

or she is subject to the restraining order." id. at 30,579 (emphasis added). See also

id. ("It is that situation where there is a restraining order in force against someone

who poses a clear threat that my amendment is intended to address.").

On November, 19, 1993, the Senate struck all after the enacting clause of

H.R. 3355 and inserted the text of S. 1607. 139 Cong. Rec. 30,588 (Nov. 19,

1993). As amended, H.R. 3355 passed the Senate on a recorded vote of 95-4.

Thus, as it left the Senate, H.R. 3355 contained two provisions dealing with

restraining orders and firearms the Wellstone Amendment as Sections 4201-4203

in Title XIII "Domestic Violence" and the Chafee-Hatch Amendment as Section

Page 34

301 in Title III "Firearms." The recess ensued and no further action was taken on

the 1994 Crime Bill until the Spring.

On March 18, 1994, Representative Brooks introduced H.R. 4092, an

omnibus crime bill similar to H.R. 3355. As introduced, this bill contained a

Violence Against Women Act (Title XVI). Sections 1624-1625 of H.R. 4092 were

identical to the Schroeder provisions on firearm possession and domestic violence

contained in §§ 232-233 of H.R. 1133. After debate and numerous floor

amendments relating to other issues, H.R. 4092 was passed by the House on April

21, 1994 by a record vote of 285-141. 140 Cong. Rec. 8141 (Apr. 21, 1994). Its

text was then inserted into H.R. 3355, thus becoming the House version of the crime bill.

As of April of 1994, the House and Senate had passed two different versions

of an omnibus crime bill labeled H.R. 3355. The House version contained the

Schroeder provisions as Sections 1624-1625, which required a restraining order that

"includes a finding that such person represents a credible threat to the physical

safety of such intimate partner." H.R. 3355, 103d Cong. § 1625 (1993). The

Senate version contained the Chafee-Hatch Amendment as Section 301, which

required that "the court issuing the order find[] under this subsection [the person

Page 35

restrained] to represent a credible threat to the physical safety of that other person."

The Senate version also contained the Wellstone Amendment as Sections 4201-

4203, which required that the order be issued in a case involving the

use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against a person or a substantial risk thereof.

H.R. 3355, 103d Cong. § 4202 (1993). Thus, all three of the provisions that entered

the House-Senate Conference on the Crime Bill in the Summer of 1994 required a

restraining order supported by sufficient evidence of past or future dangerousness

before a person was disabled from possessing a firearm.

The House and Senate conferees debated and held hearings intermittently

during June and July of 1994 until they agreed to file a Conference Report on July

28, 1994. H.R. Rep. No. 103-694 was filed on August 10, 1994. 140 Cong. Rec.

20,775 (Aug. 10, 1994). The three provisions dealing with firearm possession and

domestic violence discussed above were consolidated by the conferees into Section

110401 of H.R 3355, under Subtitle D - "Domestic Violence" contained in Title XI

"Firearms." Section 110401, which became law in the same form as it emerged

from the House-Senate Conference, contained for the first time Subsection (C)(ii),

couched as an alternative to Subjection (C)(i).

The only explanation of the resulting provision in the first conference report,

Page 36

H.R. Rep. No. 103-694, consists of a repetition of the three congressional

"Findings," contained in the Schroeder and Wellstone provisions. The first

Conference Report was recommitted to the Committee of Conference, and a new

report, H.R. Rep. No. 103-711, was filed in the House. 140 Cong. Rec. 23,376

(Aug. 21, 1994). No changes were made to Section 110401 between the two

Conference Reports, although, the second conference report, H.R. Rep. No. 103-

711, elaborates slightly on the amalgamation of the three provisions at issue. H.R.

Rep. No. 103-711 states:

H.R. Rep. No. 103-711, available in LEXIS, Legis library, CMTRPT file (1994).

This statement in the Conference Report strongly suggests that the House-Senate

conferees did not intend to abandon the requirement of some judicial finding in their

final product, since the House version (Schroeder) contained a clear finding


There is very little publicly available information to ascertain how and why

the House-Senate Conferees arrived at the extremely awkward melding of portions

Page 37

of the Chafee-Hatch, Wellstone, and Schroeder provisions into the final legislation.

On June 28, 1994, Senator Wellstone urged the House and Senate conferees to

"accept the much stronger Senate language that would actually get guns out of the

hands of known abusers, instead of the weak House language." Press Release by

Sen. Paul Wellstone, "Adopt Crime Bill Domestic Violence Provisions," June 28,

1994, p. 1, available in LEXIS, News Library, ARCNWS File (emphasis added).

Most of Wellstone's statement focused on the provision of his amendment that

would have disabled those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse from owning

firearms. It is largely in this context that he referred to the House bill as "weaker."

In the same statement, Wellstone criticized the Chafee-Hatch amendment because

the prohibition only takes effect after actual notice and an opportunity to be heard.

Senator Wellstone also wrote a letter to all House-Senate Conferees on June

21, 1994. The letter argues for the "stronger" Senate version, but in the

context of doing so, states: "We must keep firearms out of homes where domestic violence

has already occurred and is apt to occur again." Letter of Sen. Paul Wellstone to

Crime Bill Conference Committee Members, dated June 21, 1994, p.1. (emphasis

added). Senator Wellstone made an identical statement in a June 24, 1994 letter to

Attorney General Janet Reno. Letter of Sen. Paul Wellstone to the Honorable Janet

Page 38

Reno, dated June 14, 1994, p. 1.

Thus, the major issues before the Conference Committee were: (1) whether to

adopt the Wellstone provision disabling persons convicted of domestic abuse

misdemeanors; and (2) whether to retain the requirement of actual notice and an

opportunity to be heard, over Senator Wellstone's objections. On both of these

issues, Senator Wellstone lost and either the House approach or the Chafee- Hatch

approach prevailed. The Conference Committee's retention of the requirements of

actual notice and an opportunity to participate are strong legislative evidence that

they did not intend to abandon the requirement of some finding of past or future

dangerousness. Even Senator Wellstone's own public comments lend support to the

notion that the final legislation required some finding that domestic violence either

had already occurred or was apt to occur again.

In sum, the legislative history establishes that all three proposals that went

into the House-Senate Conference Committee were focused on persons who, in fact,

posed a danger to the safety of their intimate partners or children. None of the

proposals would have allowed a routine restraining order in a divorce proceeding to

result in a blanket prohibition of firearms ownership. The statements of the key

legislators who can be considered sponsors of what became Section 922(g)(8), all

Page 39

support the necessity of a showing of dangerousness prior to loss of the right to

possess a firearm. Nothing in the Conference Committee's actions or report

suggests any desire to suddenly jettison the requirement of a finding. In fact, the

Conference Committee's reference to the House version as its primary source,

coupled with its insistence on "actual notice" of and an "opportunity to participate"

in a hearing, inexorably implies that some finding must be made at the hearing.

This Court is confronted with a criminal statute for which there is no ideal

interpretation. The approach advocated by the government, and accepted by the

court below, renders large portions of the statute superfluous. Under that view,

Subsection (C)(ii) becomes the only truly operative portion of the statute. This

approach renders meaningless Congress's clear insistence upon the due process

concepts of actual notice and a right to participate in a hearing. This approach also

violates congressional intent by reaching restraining orders in cases with no hint of

domestic dangerousness. Most importantly, this approach raises a serious Second

Amendment issue.

There is an alternative interpretation of Section 922(g)(8) that conforms to the

Page 40

purpose of the statute and the intent of Congress. This alternative reading also

avoids the serious constitutional difficulties created by the government's sweeping

view of the statute. This Court should read the statute's requirement of a

"hearing" with an "opportunity to participate" in Subsection (A) to entail the concomitant

requirement of a judicial finding of dangerousness— whether Subsection (C)(i) or

(C)(ii) is invoked. This reading is consistent with the statute's legislative history

and purpose and with the due process requirement that a factfinder issue some

written rationale for its decision that can be understood, scrutinized, and even

appealed. Because this restraining order was, in the state judge's own words

"boilerplate," entered with no judicial finding of domestic dangerousness, it cannot

operate to disable appellee from firearm possession under Section 922(g)(8).

Under this interpretation, Subsections (C)(i) and (C)(ii) address two different

situations. Subsection (C)(i) applies by its terms only to cases in which the court

order itself "includes a finding" of future dangerousness. Subsection (C)(ii) should

be read to address those situations where the finding is not embodied in the order

itself— but is instead contained in a hearing transcript or has been entered in a

previous criminal or civil proceeding. Under this reading, both Subsections (C)(i)

and (C)(ii) have independent operation, and the severe textual problems inherent in

Page 41

the government's reading are avoided.

This alternative approach to Section 922(g)(8) has another signal virtue it is

consistent with this Court's duty to avoid the unnecessary litigation of a serious

constitutional issue. In Bland v. United States, 299 F.2d 105 (5th Cir. 1962), and

United States v. Boerner, 508 F.2d 1064 (5th Cir. 1975), this Court employed the

doctrine of constitutional doubt to read a knowledge element into 8 U.S.C. §

1324(a)(1), a statute which criminalizes the importation of aliens into the United

States. This court noted that "the literal text of subsection (1) of section 1324(a)

does not specify as a requisite for the offense that a person act knowingly, whereas

the remaining subsections of the statute, (2), (3) and (4), expressly make such a

requirement." Boerner, 508 F.2d at 1067. This Court implied the missing

knowledge element into Subsection (1) of that statute in words directly applicable to

this case:

id. at 1068. Accord United States v. Wallington, 889 F.2d 573, 576-78 (5th Cir.

Page 42

1989) (adopting narrow interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1905 to avoid constitutional

difficulties). The reasoning employed by this Court's decisions in Bland, Boerner,

and Wallington is directly applicable to Section 922(g)(8), and thus requires this

Court to read Subsection (C)(ii) to contain an implied element of a judicial finding

of domestic dangerousness.

Requiring some judicial finding in prosecutions under Subsection (C)(ii) is

also consistent with the rule of lenity. At a minimum, Section 922(g)(8) is

ambiguous as to whether it applies to a pro forma restraining order entered without

any supporting evidence or finding of domestic threat or danger. It certainly does

not provide a reasonable person with notice that an order unsupported by any

finding may result in criminal liability for firearms possession— indeed Subsection

(C)(i) would suggest the opposite to a reasonable lay person. Accordingly, the rule

of lenity requires that Section 922(g)(8) be interpreted to require proof of a

restraining order backed by a judicial finding that the person subject to the order

posed an actual threat of domestic abuse. See Cisneros, 194 F.3d at ____, 1999

U.S. App. LEXIS 28404, at * 19 (" 'This practice [of resolving questions of the

ambit of criminal statutes in favor of lenity] reflects not merely a convenient maxim

of statutory construction. Rather, it is rooted in fundamental principles of due

Page 43

process which mandate that no individual be forced to speculate, at peril of

indictment, whether his conduct is prohibited.' ") (quoting Dunn v. United States,

442 U.S. 100, 112 (1979)). Whether pursuant to the doctrine of constitutional

avoidance or the rule of lenity, this Court should reject the government's

interpretation of Section 922(g)(8) and hold that the statute addresses only those

state court restraining orders entered based upon some finding of past misconduct or

future dangerousness.


For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court dismissing the

indictment against Dr. Emerson should be affirmed.

Page 44

December 20, 1999

Respectfully submitted,

Bill Pryor
Attorney General of Alabama
11 S. Union Street, Suite 310
Montgomery, Alabama 36130

Charles J. Cooper
Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal, PLLC
Washington, DC
*Counsel of Record.

Page 45


1. The district court did not, as the government would have it, “overlook[] Fifth Circuit case law,” Brief for the Appellant (“Gov’t Br.”) at 20. Rather, the court below recognized that these precedents provide little or no guidance in evaluating the constitutionality of a ban on the possession of all firearms based upon no adjudication of past wrongs or future dangerousness. text@note1

2. The only other difference between subsection (B) and subsection (C)(ii) is the word “explicitly” in (C)(ii). However, the government cannot plausibly maintain that Congress meant the definition of a federal felony to hinge on insubstantial linguistic differences among state court domestic decrees, or that subsection (B) covers restraining orders that “implicitly” prohibit domestic abuse. text@note2

3. The government provides this Court with only an extremely truncated exposition of the legislative history of the statute and discusses the statements of only one of the three sponsors of crime bill amendments that were melded into the present Section 922(g)(8). Gov’t Br. at 33-35. text@note3

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