Heading for the big show before the highest court

By David Donovan
The Daily Record Newswire
RALEIGH, NC — The U.S. Supreme Court accepts only about one percent of the petitions it receives to hear a case, but when Rich Dietz, an attorney with Kilpatrick Stockton in Winston-Salem, read the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of Bruce Abramski, he thought there was a decent chance the high court would agree to hear an appeal.

For one thing, the legal question at issue had divided the lower courts, making it ripe for Supreme Court review.

But equally important, Dietz believed that the circumstances of Abramski’s situation would make for a sympathetic case.

“There are long odds in every case, but when we read the opinion here, there were two things that really jumped out at me,” Dietz said. “First, there was a circuit split, and also there’s a real sense of injustice in the case in what happened to the defendant. So it’s appealing to take a case like that when you have sort of an emotional reason in addition to the legal reason why the court might take the case.”

Abramski, a former police officer who lives in Virginia, agreed to buy a gun for his elderly uncle in Pennsylvania, who was legally eligible to purchase a gun himself.

After conferring with gun dealers, who told them the purchase would be legal, Abramski’s uncle wrote him a check and Abramski bought the gun and then legally transferred it to his uncle.

Federal law requires gun buyers to fill out a form, and on the form state that they are the actual buyer of the gun and are not buying it on behalf of someone else. Abramski indicated on that form that he was the actual buyer. But when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms learned that Abramski’s uncle had paid for the gun before Abramski bought it, the government brought up Abramski on federal felony charges, claiming that he had lied on the paperwork.

Federal courts have long held that a person who buys a gun from a lawful dealer with the intent of selling it to a person who would not be allowed to purchase it is a “straw purchaser” who is breaking the law. However, the courts have split on the question of whether a person who buys a gun with the intent to sell it to someone who is eligible to own one, as Abramski did, is also a straw purchaser. Abramski entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed his conviction to the 4th Circuit.

On appeal, the court affirmed Abramski’s conviction and joined the circuits that have ruled the straw purchaser doctrine applicable even when one lawful purchaser buys a gun for another lawful purchaser.

After the opinion came out, attorneys at Kilpatrick Stockton contacted the Virginia lawyer who handled the case and offered to help petition it to the Supreme Court. Abramski agreed, and firm started work.

On Oct. 15, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and oral arguments are set to be heard on Jan. 22.

Dietz has served as second chair in other Supreme Court cases, but this will be his first case as counsel of record there, and his first time arguing before the high court. He said that for him most of the coming weeks will be spent making sure he is as prepared as possible for the tough audience.

“The Supreme Court justices don’t miss anything,” Dietz said. “I’ll have a busy Christmas holiday for sure.”

Abramski argues that the straw purchaser doctrine does not apply when the ultimate recipient is a lawful gun buyer and that even if it did, the statement Abramski made on the federal forms was immaterial to the legality of the sale.

He also argues that the courts extended the law beyond the intent of Congress when it created the straw purchaser doctrine.

As with any Supreme Court case, the challenge for both sides will be to find a way to cobble together a coalition of five justices to form a majority.

In the last five years the court has handed down two major decisions striking down gun ownership restrictions, with the court cleaving along familiar liberal-conservative divides.

Because this case involves a criminal conviction instead of a local ordinance, it’s not clear that it will break along similar lines, Dietz said.

“It’s a criminal case, but there are gun issues, so it’s the type of case where you may not have a typical split between the more liberal more conservative justices that you see in other cases,” Dietz said.