Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned Tuesday against a rush to judgment in a New York gun ownership dispute, citing the recent killings of 20 Connecticut schoolchildren and six educators.
Sitting on a federal appeals court panel, O'Connor cited the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre in commenting on the role that courts play in interpreting gun control laws. The three-judge panel is considering the federal rights of a man who was denied a gun permit in New York after he moved from New York to Louisiana.
"The regulation of firearms is a paramount issue of public safety, and recent events in this circuit are a sad reminder that firearms are dangerous in the wrong hands," she wrote. "Questions like the one before us require a delicate balance between individual rights and the public interest, and federal courts should avoid interfering with or evaluating that balance until it has been definitively struck."
Writing for the panel, O'Connor said that before deciding the federal constitutional issue, the panel wants to hear from the New York Court of Appeals on whether state law permits a part-time resident to get a New York gun permit.
"Moreover, the New York Court of Appeals has made clear that the question whether to read 'residence' as requiring residence or domicile requires interpretation of the value and policy judgments of the state legislature," she noted.
Alfred Osterweil applied for a handgun license in May 2008, when his Summit home in Schoharie County was still his primary residence and domicile. Before his application was decided, he moved to Louisiana, maintaining the Summit residence as a part-time vacation home. A county judge rejected his application because New York was not his primary residence.
Osterweil claimed his federal rights were violated, and filed a lawsuit seeking a federal judge's order requiring the state to issue him a license, but the judge ruled for the state.
O'Connor said Tuesday that the three-judge panel, on which she sat in late October, was facing a "serious constitutional question." She said the state court's interpretation was important.
She rejected an argument by Osterweil's lawyer that the state should not be drawn into the case but credited his depiction of the dispute as raising a serious constitutional question — an element of the case that she said was good reason to ask for input from the state court but was "not a reason to race ahead."
The 82-year-old O'Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 after 25 years. She has decided cases before in the Manhattan appeals court. Retired justices have occasionally sat on federal appeals courts as visiting judges.