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Supreme Court hears arguments on terrorism support law

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Tuesday in two cases. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court heard arguments on whether a federal law [18 USC § 2339B(a)(1)] that prohibits providing material support to terrorism violates the First Amendment. The challenge was filed by the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) [advocacy website] on behalf on several groups that wanted to support the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) [JURIST news archives], both of which have been designated as terrorist organizations by the US government. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] portions of the "material support" law and upheld others in 2007, leading both the US government and HLP to appeal. Several rights groups have filed briefs [JURIST report] in support of HLP's position. At Tuesday's session, counsel for HLP argued that the law violates the First Amendment right to free speech, while US Solicitor General Elena Kagan argued that is a "vital weapon" for combating terrorism. Several justices appeared to express concern that the law was overly restrictive.

In United States v. O'Brien and Burgess [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court heard arguments on whether mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement for the use of a machine gun in a federal crime is an element of the underlying offense that must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt or if it is to be determined by a judge at sentencing by a preponderance of the evidence. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that such a determination should be made by a jury, relying on statutory interpretation and creating a circuit split. Counsel for the petitioner, the US government, argued that the language of the statute requires a judge to make the determination. Counsel for the respondents argued that such a result in foreclosed by the Supreme Court's statutory interpretation jurisprudence.

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