2018 Problem Summary

Robert L. Wilkie,
Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Petitioner,

v.

Alexandra Hamilton,
Respondent.

Veteran Alexandra Hamilton served in the U.S. Coast Guard from March 5, 1974, to September 17, 1979, with additional prior service in the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. In 2013, Ms. Hamilton fell victim to several instances of telephone fraud. As a result, her daughter, Eliza Hamilton Holly, filed a petition in Florida state court seeking a determination of limited incapacity of Alexandra Hamilton, as well as a petition seeking to have herself appointed as Ms. Hamilton’s guardian. The Florida court appointed a committee to investigate Ms. Hamilton’s competency, and the committee recommended that a guardian be appointed to handle Ms. Hamilton’s finances and medical decision-making. On December 12, 2013, the Florida court granted both petitions, declaring Ms. Hamilton to be incompetent for financial and medical decision-making and appointing Ms. Holly as her guardian.

Because Ms. Hamilton was receiving VA benefits, the Florida court notified VA of its incompetency finding, and VA issued a decision on February 2014 declaring her incompetent for VA benefits purposes. The next month, the Columbia, South Carolina, VA Fiduciary Hub informed Ms. Hamilton that it had appointed Erin Burr as her federal fiduciary. The Hub explained that it could not appoint Ms. Holly as Ms. Hamilton’s fiduciary, because Ms. Holly had filed for bankruptcy in March 2010. Ms. Hamilton filed a Notice of Disagreement on April 16, 2014.

In her Notice of Disagreement, Ms. Hamilton argued that VA’s incompetency determination had unconstitutionally deprived her of the right to purchase and possess firearms. She also contested the appointment of Erin Burr as her federal fiduciary, arguing that her daughter Eliza should be recognized instead. She subsequently submitted several additional statements, including a statement from Ms. Holly explaining the circumstances of a bankruptcy and a letter from a gun shop owner supporting her right to purchase firearms. VA issued a Statement of the Case continuing its earlier determinations on February 11, 2015, and on March 11, 2015, Ms. Hamilton perfected her appeal to the Board.

On July 25, 2016, the Board issued a decision upholding the Fiduciary Hub’s determinations. The Board found that Ms. Hamilton had limited her argument with respect to VA’s incompetency determination to a single question: whether VA’s incompetency determination impermissibly deprived her of her Second Amendment rights. It found that it was without jurisdiction to address the Constitutional question, and it denied Ms. Hamilton’s challenge to VA’s incompetency determination. With respect to the appointment of Erin Burr as Ms. Hamilton’s VA fiduciary, the Board considered Florida’s appointment of Eliza Hamilton Holly as Ms. Hamilton’s guardian but concluded that Erin Burr was the more appropriate federal fiduciary.

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (“CAVC”), Ms. Hamilton argued that VA’s policy of notifying the FBI of all veterans declared incompetent impermissibly deprived her of her Second Amendment right to bear arms. She also argued that VA erred by not adopting Florida’s appointment of Eliza as her guardian. The Secretary responded that VA’s policy of notifying the FBI of incompetency determinations was not unconstitutional, as it was substantially related to an important governmental objective: keeping firearms out of the hands of mentally incompetent individuals.

The CAVC affirmed the Board’s decision. It held that VA’s policy of reporting incompetent veterans to the FBI was subject to intermediate scrutiny but that the policy survived that review. It also held that VA was not bound by the Florida guardianship appointment and had acted within the scope of its authority by appointing Erin Burr as Ms. Hamilton’s fiduciary. One judge concurred in part and dissenting in part, expressing concerns as to the constitutionality of VA’s reporting policy.

Ms. Hamilton appealed the CAVC decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Federal Circuit”). The Federal Circuit reversed the CAVC decision, holding both that the CAVC erred by not applying a strict scrutiny standard to VA’s reporting policy and that VA was bound by Florida’s guardianship determination. One judge dissented, arguing that it was not clear that Ms. Hamilton was protected under the traditional meaning of the Second Amendment and that the Federal government had an interest in regulating fiduciaries.

The Secretary filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on the following two questions:

  1. Does the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ practice of listing veterans deemed incompetent in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database violate those veterans’ Second Amendment rights?
  2. When a state court has determined that a veteran is incompetent and has appointed a guardian to manage that veteran’s finances, is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs obligated to adopt the state court’s guardianship appointment?

Key Dates for the 2018 Competition

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