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Emeriti Colloquium series examines D.C. v. Heller

Martin Donovan, Staff Writer

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Emeritus Professor Richard Ylvisaker (‘50) gave a lecture analyzing the 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller on Oct. 12.

Ylvisaker’s lecture was a part of Luther College’s Emeriti Colloquium series, which meets on the second Thursday of every month. The series started in September 2015. Ylvisaker initially organized monthly discussions with retired Luther faculty, but it eventually fell apart. Emeritus Professor of Biology James Eckblad built off Ylvisaker’s monthly meetings to establish the Emeriti Colloquium.

The main objective of the lecture was to analyze the arguments set forth by the Supreme Court Justices. In D.C. v. Heller, Dick Heller sued D.C., claiming that the city’s restrictions on firearms prevented him from purchasing a handgun. Heller asserted that the district’s gun laws were so strict that they infringed on his second amendment right to bear arms. The case reached the Supreme Court, where the high court ruled in a 5-4 decision in favor of Heller. According to Associate Professor of Political Science Carly Foster, D.C. v. Heller was a landmark case.

“The major implication was that they specifically said that the right to bear arms is an individual right, not a collective right,” Foster said. “In D.C. v. Heller, you had the court for the first time explicitly saying we are recognizing this as an individual right.”

Ylvisaker focused his analysis on the arguments in the case, not the outcome.

“One of the objectives to a lot of discussions on Supreme Court cases is that they tend to focus only on the conclusion,” Ylvisaker said. “I am interested in the way the cases were argued both pro and con.”

The conservative reputation of Justice Antonin Scalia drew Ylvisaker to the D.C. v. Heller case.

“Part of what attracted me to [D.C. v. Heller] is that the majority opinion is written by Antonin Scalia, and he [had] a certain type of reputation as a conservative,” Ylvisaker said. “What I am interested in is [Scalia’s] reputation as a so-called originalist in interpreting the constitution.”

An originalist believes that the constitution should be interpreted based on what the writers were thinking when they wrote it. However, Ylvisaker concluded his lecture by asserting that Scalia was not a true originalist. Based on the dissenting opinion that Justice John Paul Stevens wrote on the case, Ylvisaker indicated that Stevens was a more consistent originalist.

“One of the things that I argued and that I will argue is that Scalia [was] a very inconsistent orginalist,” Ylvisaker said. “I think Stevens in a way is the more faithful originalist.”

Stevens interpreted the second amendment to mean that gun ownership is a collective, not an individual right, and according to Ylvisaker, that is a more faithful interpretation of the amendment writer’s intentions.

In the Emeriti Colloquium series, topics range from Supreme Court decisions, to lectures on wood work, to the history of Luther College. According to Emeritus Professor John Moeller, the Emeriti Colloquium demonstrates the Luther community’s desire to learn.

“I think it reflects the type of intellectual curiosity that is apparent not only among Luther retirees, but also non-Luther retirees who have academic interests,” Moeller said. “All these people were good teachers and [are] genuinely interested in ideas, so [the Emeriti Colloquium] is an attempt to continue some of that”.

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