TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal appeals court Monday cleared the way for considering a dispute about whether two teens can remain anonymous in a challenge to a new Florida law that raised the minimum age to buy rifles and other long guns.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a two-page document that said it “appears that this court has jurisdiction to consider this appeal,” though it said a final determination on that jurisdiction will be made later by a panel of judges who will hear the anonymity issue.
The appeal stems from a ruling in May by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that a 19-year-old Alachua County woman, identified as “Jane Doe,” could not remain anonymous as a plaintiff in a National Rifle Association challenge to the gun law. The NRA also sought to add to the case a 19-year-old man, identified as “John Doe,” who could be affected by the law.
After Walker’s ruling, the NRA went to the Atlanta-based appeals court seeking to allow the teens to remain anonymous. The appeals court, however, raised a question about whether it should consider the anonymity matter and said that if “it is determined that this court is without jurisdiction, this appeal will be dismissed.”
The NRA contended the appeals court has jurisdiction over the anonymity issue. Also, Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, which has objected to the teens remaining anonymous, agreed that the appeals court could take up the dispute.
The anonymity issue is rooted in a federal lawsuit that the NRA filed March 9 after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a sweeping school-safety measure that included new gun-related restrictions. The legislation was a response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty members dead. In part, the law raised from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase rifles and other long guns.
After filing the lawsuit, the NRA moved to add the two teens to the case but sought to keep their identities private. NRA attorneys argued in a brief filed June 27 in the appeals court that the teens feared “that being publicly named in and associated with the case would subject them to harassment, intimidation, threats, and potentially even physical violence.” It also pointed to numerous harassing and threatening emails and phone calls received by prominent NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer since the shooting in Parkland and the filing of the lawsuit.
“The context of this case --- and of Jane Doe and John Doe’s request to remain anonymous --- cannot be understood apart from the tragic February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and its aftermath,” the NRA’s lawyers wrote in the brief. “That event not only led to the enactment of the ban (on people under 21 buying guns) challenged in this case; it was the catalyst for a nationwide effort to restrict the possession and use of firearms. Funded by a group of anti-gun organizations, activists have barnstormed the country advocating restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms.”
In ruling against the anonymity request in May, Walker wrote that if “it were entirely up to this court, this court would not hesitate to grant the NRA’s motion.” But Walker indicated he was bound by previous legal decisions.
Based on precedent, “this court finds that mere evidence of threats and harassment made online is insufficient to outweigh the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings,” Walker wrote. “This is especially true where the targets of such threats and harassment are not minors and where the subject at issue does not involve matters of utmost intimacy.”
While the NRA and state await action from the appeals court on the anonymity issue, the underlying challenge to the law signed by Scott has largely remained on hold. After the anonymity issue is resolved, Walker will consider the legality of the gun restriction.
Meanwhile, Hammer filed lawsuits Friday in state and federal courts against five men she says have targeted her with harmful emails and phone calls since the massacre in Parkland.