Is it domestic violence if you didn’t mean to hurt your partner but recklessly did so anyway? Ordinarily, the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t weigh in on such a question, because the misdemeanor crime of domestic violence is determined state-by-state, not by federal law. But Monday the justices heard arguments on exactly that question, in a case involving a federal law that prohibits people convicted of domestic violence from having guns.
The argument has already made headlines because Justice Clarence Thomas broke a 10-year silence to ask whether any other laws suspend constitutional rights for misdemeanor convictions. Thomas may be contemplating a gun-rights opinion of his own in the case. But for the other justices, it’s a case about statutory interpretation. Behind the technicalities lies a rather profound question about what criminal law is meant to achieve.