On 17 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in Gamble v. United States, No. 17-646, 587 U.S. (2019), that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment did not protect the petitioner against federal prosecution for an unlawful possession of firearms on the basis that the had already been tried for this act before a State court. The Majority opinio written by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts demonstrates a strong literal approach to constitutional interpretation, an faithful adherence to the document’s original meaning and a great concern for federalism.
Justice Alito, writing for the Majority, held that the Double Jeopardy Clause, which protects against being ‘twice put in jeopardy’ ‘for the same offence’, remained subject to the doctrine of separate sovereignty, specifically allowing for prosecution by a State and the federal governments based on the same charges. The Majority opinion in Gamble v. United States applies a strict literal interpretation of the Fifth Amendment (Part IIA), in doing so relying on Justice Scalia’s reasoning in Grady v. Corbin, 495 U. S. 508 (1990) where he distinguished between protection against being prosecuted for the same ‘offence’ and the same ‘act’ (at 529). Justice Alito therefore argues that, as originally understood, an ‘offence’ is defined by a law and law can only be defined by a sovereign. Given that States are sovereign creators of laws, a federal offence and a State offence pertaining to the very same conduct are not in fact ‘the same offence’ and therefore the Double Jeopardy Clause does not apply.
Justice Alito refuses to consider an argument based on the legislative history of the Double Jeopardy Clause holding that “the private intent behind a drafter’s rejection of one version of a text is shoddy evidence of the public meaning of an altogether different text.” (Part IIA). But at the same time, he claims that even if the legislative history was to be relied on, it would support the doctrine of separate sovereignty. This, however, by no means is a rejection of the importance of the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment. The Majority opinion deals extensively with the argument that the doctrine of separate sovereignty goes against the English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy pre-dating the adoption of the Fifth Amendment, but it rejects this argument as both unsubstantiated (Part IIIA) as well against a long strain of US cases going back as far as 1847. The Majority invokes the case of Fox v. Ohio, 5 How. 410 (1847) where, at 435, the Supreme Court held that “offences falling within the competency of different authorities to restrain or punish them would not properly be subjected to the consequences which those authorities might ordain and affix to their perpetration.” (Part IIB).
Finally, Justice Alito adds yet another layer of argument – federalism. For him, States could be compared to foreign countries in terms of their sovereignty vis-a-vis the federal government. Justice Alito argues that in the absence of the doctrine of separate sovereignty, American courts would not be able to try people who have been tried in foreign courts as this would inevitably trigger the Double Jeopardy Clause. In fact, he states that “[the] Constitution rests on the principle that the people are sovereign, but that does not mean that they have conferred all the attributes of sovereignty on a single government” (Part IIB).
On the other hand, Justice Gorsuch, in his Dissenting opinion, rejects the Majority opinion as grounded nowhere in the Constitution. He argues that the history of the western legal tradition, the legislative history of the Fifth Amendment as well as the English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy all point to the word ‘offence’ as not having any technical meaning allowing for a double set of prosecution by a State and the federal governments.
Interestingly, Justice Thomas, used his Concurring opinion, submitted in addition to the Majority opinion which he joined, to re-emphasise his latest criticism of the doctrine of stare decisis as an inviolable rule:
“Given that the primary role of federal courts today is to interpret legal texts with ascertainable meanings, precedent plays a different role in our exercise of the ‘judicial Power’ than it did at common law. In my view, if the Court encounters a decision that is demonstrably erroneous—i.e., one that is not a permissible interpretation of the text—the Court should correct the error, regardless of whether other factors support overruling the precedent. Federal courts may (but need not) adhere to an incorrect decision as precedent, but only when traditional tools of legal interpretation show that the earlier decision adopted a textually permissible interpretation of the law. ” (Part C)
Beyond the impact on the Double Jeopardy Clause, Gamble v. United States appears to be important as it falls within the recent trend of cases decided by the US Supreme Court based on some form of historical approach. In this case, both the Majority and the Dissent argued mainly over the history of the western legal tradition, the legislative history of the Fifth Amendment and the old English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy. Crucially, this includes not only the five originalists, but also the four liberals.