A federal judge said he will block a “tyrannical” provision in an incoming California gun law because it would have the “chilling effect” of discouraging people from challenging the statute in court.
Judge Roger Benitez said in a San Diego courtroom on Dec. 16 that he would soon issue an injunction halting part of a state law scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, according to The Associated Press. The offending provision would require those who fight the state’s gun laws to pay the government’s legal fees should they lose in court and was heavily promoted by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat with presidential ambitions.
The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, is Miller v. Bonta, court file 22-cv-1446. The lawsuit is one of many now pending in courts across the country after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past June that individuals have a constitutional right to carry firearms in public for self-defense.
The so-called loser-pays requirement would produce a “chilling effect” that would hinder state residents from suing to vindicate their legal rights because they would fear having to pay potentially huge lawyers’ tabs, Benitez said, agreeing with Second Amendment advocates.
“I can’t think of anything more tyrannical,” said Benitez, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
Benitez previously ruled against California laws targeting gun ownership. His defense of the Second Amendment has earned him the nickname “St. Benitez” among gun rights activists.
In June 2021, the judge found that California’s Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which prohibited so-called assault weapons such as the popular AR-15 rifle in the state, ran afoul of the Second Amendment. Weeks later the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit put his ruling on hold. And in March 2019, Benitez found that the state’s ban on large-capacity magazines included in Proposition 63 was unconstitutional.
In the case at hand, the judge said he would not prevent the rest of the statute from coming into force, leaving intact provisions that prohibit the sale of certain so-called assault weapons and a ban on guns lacking serial numbers.
The California gun law relies on a novel enforcement mechanism inspired by a Texas law enacted last year that crowdsourced abortion enforcement, giving individuals the right to sue over alleged violations of the state’s fetal-heartbeat abortion law. The law allows, for example, for someone who helped a woman obtain an unlawful abortion by driving her to a clinic to be sued.
Newsom argues the Texas abortion law is unconstitutional but says if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds it, then his state will rely on the same enforcement mechanism to target Second Amendment protections.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused a request to block the Texas law and on Dec. 10, 2021, issued a complex procedural ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, remanding the case to a lower court. Then in June of this year, the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent that held abortion was a constitutional right, leading to a flurry of activity in state legislatures and legal challenges to abortion laws in courts across the nation.
In court on Dec. 16, Benitez chided lawyers for the state of California who said the state does not intend to enforce the legal fees rules unless the Texas law survives legal scrutiny.
“We’re not in a kindergarten sandbox. It’s not about, ‘Mommy he did this to me so I should be able to do this to him,’” Benitez reportedly said.
Bradley Benbrook and Stephen Duvernay, attorneys for the California gun law challengers, and lawyers for the state, Elizabeth K. Watson and Thomas A. Willis, did not reply as of press time. The California Gun Rights Foundation, which is fighting the law, also did not reply to a request for comment.
But lawyer Joshua Dale, who represents a San Diego area gun club that is involved in the lawsuit, told Benitez the law would put undue pressure on would-be litigants.
“I’m terrified of this law,” Dale said in court, according to the AP.
“It would be absolutely devastating to pay the state’s attorney fees. I’ve got kids. I’ve got a mortgage. I could never pay $50,000 or $100,000 without emptying my 401(k) account.”