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After a Bitter Fight, Justice Kavanaugh to Take the Bench

Three days after the fierce battle over his nomination ended in his elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh will join his new colleagues on the bench for the first time on Tuesday morning, taking a seat on the far right side of the bench, in the spot reserved for the most junior justice.

The court will hear two hours of arguments in three cases, all concerning a complicated and ambiguous federal law that has long vexed the justices. The cases do not raise questions of high constitutional moment or involve pressing social issues, which may be just as well for a court that has sustained collateral damage from a confirmation fight marked by bitterness, distrust and raw partisanship.

The law, the Armed Career Criminal Act, is a kind of three-strikes statute. It requires stiffer sentences for people convicted of possessing firearms in federal court if they have earlier been found guilty of three violent felonies or serious drug charges.

Figuring out what qualifies as one of those earlier offenses is not always easy. The first case, Stokeling v. United States, No. 17-5554, concerns a part of the law that defined violent felonies to include any offense involving the use or threat of physical force. The question in the case is whether minimal force, as in a purse snatching, is enough.

The case involves Denard Stokeling, who pleaded guilty to possessing a gun after burglarizing a restaurant in Miami Beach. He had three earlier convictions, and prosecutors argued that they required a much longer sentence than the one the gun charge would ordinarily have warranted.

Mr. Stokeling objected, saying his 1997 conviction for “unarmed robbery” in state court, arising from a snatched necklace, did not amount to a violent felony. That meant, he said, that he should face only a maximum sentence of 10 years rather than a minimum sentence of 15 years.

A trial judge agreed, sentencing Mr. Stokeling to about six years in prison. But the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled that unarmed robbery under the Florida law necessarily involved the use of force, requiring the longer sentence.

The court will consider another part of the same law in two other cases — United States v. Stitt, No. 17-765, and United States v. Sims, No. 17-766 — consolidated for a single hour of arguments.

The law says burglaries are violent felonies that can require longer sentences. But it does not specify what qualifies as a burglary.

The Supreme Court has said the crime requires invasion of “a building or structure.” But the defendants in the two cases — Victor Stitt of Tennessee and Jason Sims of Arkansas — were convicted under state laws that allow prosecutions of burglaries of mobile homes and other vehicles in which people sleep.

Justice Kavanaugh and his colleagues will have to decide, then, whether a mobile home is more like a car or a house.

 

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