In 2017, [Judge Roger T. Benitez] was assigned the large-capacity magazine lawsuit. Then came three more 2nd Amendment cases in the next two years, because of a court rule that allows either side to request that their case be heard by a judge with previous experience on the topic.
Gun control advocates have argued that gun-rights groups have used that rule to “judge shop,” filing 2nd Amendment cases in Benitez’s district in an effort to get a more favorable hearing.
The gun cases have become Benitez’s calling card, turning him into a polarizing figure: lionized by the firearms lobby as a hero unwinding onerous regulations, and vilified by advocates for stricter gun laws who say his interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is alarming and extreme.
After the assault-weapon ruling, Gov. Gavin Newsom excoriated Benitez as a “stone-cold ideologue” and a “wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Assn.,” comments that were criticized by multiple bar associations as personal attacks damaging trust in the judiciary.
Gun rights groups have hailed Benitez for what they deem an honest, clear-eyed approach to the law and an insistence that government lawyers prove that gun control measures actually work.
“He doesn’t take their word for something,” said attorney C.D. Michel, president of the California Rifle & Pistol Assn., who has had two of his lawsuits challenging gun laws decided favorably by Benitez. “You can’t just say, ‘This makes you safer’ — which is what politicians say in press conferences — but not have the empirical evidence to back it up.”
A gun owner himself, Benitez has made rulings that have taken aim at California’s decades-old attempts by lawmakers and voters to toughen gun laws. He deemed the state’s assault-weapon ban — signed into law in 1989 by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian — a “failed experiment.”
California’s assault-weapon ban violates the 2nd Amendment in part because militias could be forced to settle for “less than ideal” weapons rather than the “ideal” AR-15 rifle, Benitez wrote. (“That may not be a severe burden today when the need for the militia is improbable,” he wrote. “One could say the same thing about the improbable need for insurance policies.”)
“That was a new and deeply disturbing line of thinking,” said Ari Freilich, the California policy director for the Giffords Law Center. Benitez, he said, seemed to suggest that the 2nd Amendment protects the right of “average people in a civilian militia to make war against their government.”
“If we take that seriously, then there’s no limiting principle on the types of firearms that people should be allowed to possess, including tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns,” Freilich said.
— Laura J. Nelson and Kristina Davis in The judge upending California’s gun laws: ‘Blessed’ jurist or ‘stone-cold ideologue’?