Missouri enacted what it called a “Second Amendment Protection Act” (SAPA) in 2021. As I’ve written previously about the law, it not only bars state officials’ assistance with the enforcement of federal gun laws, but also purports to nullify some of those laws in the state. The law has faced a number of lawsuits, including from the U.S. Justice Department and, separately, the City of St. Louis and several counties. The DOJ lawsuit is proceeding separately, but the Missouri Supreme Court released an opinion earlier this week in City of St. Louis v. State, holding 6-1 that the local government plaintiffs could proceed with their lawsuit for declaratory relief.
That lawsuit began shortly after the SAPA was signed into law. The localities claimed that
SAPA infringed upon rights guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions, curtailed law enforcement officers’ ability to investigate, apprehend, and prosecute criminals: and violated the United States Supremacy Clause. The petition further claimed SAPA violated the Missouri Constitution because it: usurped the power and authority granted to charter cities and counties; did not having a single subject, clear title, or original purpose; created a special law; and infringed upon the separation of powers.
They argued that immediate relief was necessary because “they were parties to several task forces with federal law enforcement agencies,” and pursuant to those task forces, often participated in assisting with the enforcement of federal gun laws. The trial court, however, rejected the plaintiffs’ request for declaratory and injunctive relief because it concluded that they had an adequate remedy at law—they could raise their constitutional arguments in defense to civil actions seeking to enforce the SAPA.
On appeal, the state defended the lower court’s ruling on both the grounds that the lawsuit was not ripe because the state had not sought to enforce the SAPA provisions against the localities and on the grounds that adequate remedies at law existed. The Supreme Court rejected the first argument because the Declaratory Judgment Act was specifically designed to settle such constitutional questions in advance. And the localities did not have an adequate alternative remedy by merely being able to invoke their constitutional defenses in later affirmative lawsuits because those would subject them to multiple and varying suits. Adopting an apt metaphor the Court had used in a prior case, it said “[o]nce the gun has been cocked and aimed and the finger is on the trigger, it is not necessary to wait until the bullet strikes to invoke the Declaratory Judgment Act.” The Court’s precedents, it continued, meant that “a party need not face a multiplicity of lawsuits or wait for an enforcement action to be initiated before seeking a declaration of rights.”
The Supreme Court declined, however, to issue an opinion on the constitutional claims in the first instance, but instead remanded for the lower court to do so initially. The case will now go back to have the constitutional claims adjudicated and may be a signal for how other SAPA-style laws will fare when confronted with these kinds of questions about their legality.