The U.S. Supreme Court has recently handed down a decision that strengthens the laws against domestic violence by giving a broad definition to the word “violence.” A Tennessee resident named Castleman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. The charge did not require any kind of physical force.
The federal authorities sought to deny Castleman the right to bear arms under the federal state found at 18 U.S.C. section 922(g)(9), which denies such right to anyone convicted of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” As every lawyer knows, justice requires that the definitions of one statutory scheme must be compared to, or synchronized with, the definitions of any related statutory scheme.
In this case, Castleman raised an issue with the definitions of violence found in the statute to which he pleaded guilty and the federal statute which was used to deny his gun rights. His argument was that the Tennessee statute includes all sorts of behaviors within its definition that are not physically violent. Therefore, one might conclude that the state definition is too broad to be used fairly under the federal statute. Or to put it another way, the federal definition of domestic violence should require some element of physical violence before denying anyone the right to bear arms.
The judges who heard this case were truly divided on the proper standard to use. The District Court trial judge held that “violent contact with the victim” was required. The majority of appeals judges for the Sixth Circuit held that the standard for physical force should be the same as for violent felonies under federal law. One dissenting justice argued for the broader definition found in the Tennessee statute.
Justice Sotomayor wrote for the majority. She interprets Congress’ intent based upon the common law definitions, and therefore decided that “force” in this case should be interpreted as “offensive touching.”
This is a much broader definition and covers many more behaviors, which Sotomayor suggested would not be considered violence in a non-domestic setting. She defined the term violence as “a substantial degree of force,” and domestic violence as “a term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in the nondomestic context.”
She goes on to include in the definition hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing an arm so hard as to cause a bruise, and other physical acts, non of which alone would be given a second thought but that, over time, add up to domestic violence. This definition is an attempt to define domestic violence according to findings of the social sciences on this topic.
Justice Scalia concurred, meaning he agreed with the decision of the majority but for his own reasons. He argued that federal cases had rejected the common law definition of battery but that Tennessee’s definition of misdemeanor domestic violence still fit the federal definition. Pointing to the definition of physical force that Sotomayor rejected, Scalia pointed out that under federal law, the physical force definition was a felony and that the federal government specified misdemeanor domestic violence. Under Johnson, misdemeanor violence would be “force capable of causing physical pain or injury, serious or otherwise.” So by Scalia’s standard, Castleman was still guilty. But Scalia’s standard was narrower than the majority’s definition, which used the phrase, “term of art” to define domestic violence.
The majority’s definition can include any behaviors that would not be violence except in the domestic setting. It seems to be discretionary under this definition as to what adds up to domestic violence. Scalia’s definition sets out a clearer rule of law. However, either way, this decision clearly moves the country towards better protections for the victims of domestic violence.