537 U.S. 71 (2002), 01-704, United States v. Bean

Docket Nº:No. 01-704
Citation:537 U.S. 71, 123 S.Ct. 584, 154 L.Ed.2d 483, 71 U.S.L.W. 4017
Party Name:UNITED STATES, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. THOMAS LAMAR BEAN
Case Date:December 10, 2002
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 71

537 U.S. 71 (2002)

123 S.Ct. 584, 154 L.Ed.2d 483, 71 U.S.L.W. 4017

UNITED STATES, ET AL., PETITIONERS

v.

THOMAS LAMAR BEAN

No. 01-704

United States Supreme Court

December 10, 2002

Argued October 16, 2002

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Because of respondent’s felony conviction, he was prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) from possessing, distributing, or receiving firearms or ammunition. Relying on § 925(c), he applied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for relief from his firearms disabilities. ATF returned the application unprocessed, explaining that its annual appropriations law forbade it from expending any funds to investigate or act upon such applications. Invoking § 925(c)’s judicial review provision, he filed suit, asking the District Court to conduct its own inquiry into his fitness to possess a gun and to issue a judicial order granting relief. The court granted the requested relief, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

The absence of an actual denial by ATF of a felon’s petition precludes judicial review under § 925(c). The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to grant relief from a firearms disability if certain preconditions are met, and an applicant may seek federal-court review if the Secretary denies his application. Ibid. Since 1992, however, the appropriations bar has prevented ATF, to which the Secretary has delegated this authority, from using appropriated funds to investigate or act upon the applications. Section 925(c)’s text and the procedure it lays out for seeking relief make clear that an actual decision by ATF on an application is a prerequisite for judicial review, and that mere inaction by ATF does not invest a district court with independent jurisdiction. Grammatically, the phrase “denied by the Secretary” references the Secretary’s decision on whether an applicant “will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety,” and whether “the granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest.” Such determination can hardly be construed as anything but a decision actually denying the application. Under § 925(c)’s procedure for those seeking relief, the Secretary, i.e., ATF, has broad authority to grant or deny relief, even when the statutory prerequisites are satisfied. This procedure shows that judicial review cannot occur without a dispositive decision by ATF. First, in the absence of a statutorily defined standard of review for action under § 925(c), the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) supplies the applicable standard. 5 U.S.C. §§ 701(a), 706(2)(A). The APA’s “arbitrary and capricious” test, by its nature, contemplates review of some

Page 72

action by another entity. Second, both parts of § 925(c)’s standard for granting relief—whether an applicant is “likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety” and whether the relief is in the “public interest”—are policy-based determinations and, hence, point to ATF as the primary decisionmaker. Third, § 925(c) allows the admission of additional evidence in district court proceedings only in exceptional circumstances. Congressional assignment of such a circumscribed role to a district court shows that the statute contemplates that a court’s determination will heavily rely on the record and the ATF’s decision. Indeed, the very use in § 925(c) of the word “review” to describe a court’s responsibility in this statutory scheme signifies that it cannot grant relief on its own, absent an antecedent actual denial by ATF. Pp. 74–78.

253 F.3d 234, reversed.

Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Olson, Assistant Attorney General McCallum, Irving L. Gornstein, Mark B. Stern, and Thomas M. Bondy.

Thomas C. Goldstein argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Larry C. Hunter and Amy Howe [*]

JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

We consider in this case whether, despite appropriation provisions barring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) from acting on applications for relief from firearms disabilities of persons convicted of a felony, a federal district court has authority under 18 U.S.C. § 925(c) to grant such relief.

I

After attending a gun show in Laredo, Texas, respondent, Thomas Lamar Bean, a gun dealer, and his associates drove

Page 73

respondent’s vehicle to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, for dinner. Bean v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 253 F.3d 234, 236 (CA5 2001). When Mexican officials stopped the vehicle at the border, they found in the back, in plain view, approximately 200 rounds of ammunition. Ibid . According to respondent, he had instructed his associates to remove any firearms and ammunition from his vehicle, but inexplicably one box remained. Ibid . Respondent was convicted in a Mexican court of importing ammunition into Mexico and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

Because of his felony conviction, respondent was prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) from possessing, distributing, or receiving firearms or ammunition. Relying on § 925(c), respondent applied to ATF for relief from his firearms disabilities. ATF returned the application un- processed, explaining that its annual appropriations law forbade it from expending any funds to investigate or act upon applications such as respondent’s.

Respondent then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Relying on the judicial review provision in § 925(c), respondent asked the District Court to conduct its own inquiry into his fitness to possess a gun, and to issue a judicial order granting relief from his firearms disabilities. Respondent attached various affidavits from persons attesting to his fitness to possess firearms. After conducting a hearing, the court entered judgment granting respondent the requested relief. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that congressional refusal to provide funding to ATF for reviewing applications such as respondent’s “is not the requisite direct and definite suspension or repeal of the subject rights.” 253 F.3d, at 239. The Fifth Circuit then proceeded to hold that the District Court had jurisdiction to review ATF’s (in)action. We granted certiorari. 534 U.S. 1112 (2002).

Page 74

II

Under federal law, a person who is convicted of a felony is prohibited from possessing firearms. See § 922(g)(1). The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to grant...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP