California’s attempt to discourage legal challenges to its gun laws has been dealt a fatal blow in court.
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the “fee-shifting” provision in California’s law mimicking Texas’ bounty-style abortion ban on Monday. Benitez ruled the provision “substantially chills First Amendment rights.”
“This Court concludes that the purpose and effect of § 1021.11 is to trench on a citizen’s right of access to the courts and to discourage the peaceful vindication of an enumerated constitutional right,” Benitez wrote in his opinion. “Because the state fee-shifting statute undermines a citizen’s constitutional rights, it is this Court’s role to declare its invalidity and enjoin its threat.”
The ruling ends one of the more egregious examples of the tit-for-tat battle between the governments of California and Texas. The law made plaintiffs and their lawyers financially responsible for covering the California government’s legal expenses if they challenged a gun law and didn’t win on every claim they made, even if they won on most of them.
Benitez said a law that would financially penalize citizens for questioning the legitimacy of certain gun restrictions “may be familiar to autocratic and tyrannical governments, but not American government.”
A coalition of gun-rights groups, including the Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) and Second Amendment Foundation, filed suit against the provision in September. They cheered Judge Benitez’s decision.
“The enactment of SB 1327 was intended to do only one thing: chill the rights of the people and dissuade them from pursuing justice from tyranny.” Bill Sack, FPC Director of Legal Operations, said. “The Court made it clear today that cynical political grandstanding will not be tolerated when it infringes on the rights of the people.”
Governor Newsom, who was forced to intervene in the suit to defend the law after Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) removed himself from the litigation due to his past comments calling the law “unconstitutional,” remained defiant following the ruling. He took the opportunity to celebrate Benitez’s decision as a ruling against Texas rather than the law he signed.
“I want to thank Judge Benitez,” Newsom said. “We have been saying all along that Texas’ anti-abortion law is outrageous. Judge Benitez just confirmed it is also unconstitutional. The provision in California’s law that he struck down is a replica of what Texas did, and his explanation of why this part of SB 1327 unfairly blocks access to the courts applies equally to Texas’ SB 8. There is no longer any doubt that Texas’ cruel anti-abortion law should also be struck down.”
The California law in question, Senate Bill 1327, came after the Supreme Court declined to block Texas’ bounty-style abortion law on procedural grounds. It allows private citizens to sue those making or selling so-called assault weapons or ghost guns for up to $10,000 per weapon. It also attempted to mimic the fee-shifting provision in the Texas law it copied.
Judge Benitez said that the stakes of allowing such a law to stand extended far beyond gun rights.
“Today, it applies to Second Amendment rights,” he said. “Tomorrow, with a slight amendment, it could be any other constitutional right including the right to speak freely, to freedom of the press, to practice one’s religion, to restrict cruel and unusual punishment, and to be free from government takings without compensation.”