Frederick Scullin.
Frederick Scullin. ()

U.S. District Senior Judge Frederick Scullin Jr.—the federal judge who struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on carrying handguns in public for self-defense—has a reputation as a no-nonsense jurist who sticks closely to the text of the law.

“He generally has a conservative approach to following the law—conservative in the strictest legal sense: ‘This is what Congress wrote, this is what I’m doing, I’m not in search of ambiguities,’ ” said Edward Menkin, a veteran criminal defense lawyer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Menkin and other Syracuse lawyers know Scullin, but he’s not as familiar a face in Washington. Scullin, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, was confirmed in 1992 to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York—not the District of Columbia. In recent years, however, he’s taken approximately 30 cases in Washington as one of a handful of federal judges from other courts tapped to help clear out old cases.

In an opinion published July 26, Scullin ruled the District’s ban on carrying handguns in public for self-defense no longer passed constitutional muster. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling striking down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns in the home, District of Columbia v. Heller, and the 2010 high court decision in McDonald v. Chicago extending firearm rights to the states.

The city has long defended its gun laws against challenges in court, with varying success. The city lost Heller, but in May, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg—a judge confirmed to the D.C. federal trial bench— upheld other gun regulations adopted by the D.C. Council.

Given the importance of the gun control issue in Washington, Scullin’s outsider status is significant, said Thorn Pozen of Goldblatt Martin Pozen in Washington, a former special counsel in the city attorney general’s office. Pozen said he was “disappointed” with the ruling.

“We have circuits for a reason,” Pozen said. “These judges become familiar with the areas where they sit. They’re, generally speaking, from there, have history in those areas and I think that this ruling shows in some ways Judge Scullin’s lack of familiarity with the city, with our history and, in the words of the statute, the unique character and special risks that we have here.”

The Office of the Attorney General on Monday asked Scullin to put his decision on hold pending an appeal or other action by the D.C. Council. Alan Gura of Gura & Possessky in Alexandria, Va., represented the challengers.

Senior judges routinely take cases in other circuits, with the permission of the chief justice of the United States. Scullin took senior status in 2006. Besides the District of Columbia, Scullin has handled cases in federal trial courts in Florida and Arizona, and in the U.S. courts of appeals for the Ninth and Second circuits, according to his chambers. The judge declined to comment.

U.S. District Senior Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, who was chief federal trial judge in 2011, said Scullin was a part of a group of volunteer judges approved to take cases in D.C. to help reduce a backlog of old cases. At the time, the court had several open seats and was swamped with cases filed by detainees at the U.S. military installation in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Lamberth told The National Law Journal on Monday.

Scullin was already familiar with the D.C. court. From 2004 to 2011, he traveled between New York and Washington as a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is housed in the D.C. federal trial courthouse.

The non-D.C. judges took cases with motions that were overdue or about to become overdue, in addition to other cases that had been pending for too long, Lamberth said. The gun case was not specially assigned to Scullin, Lamberth said.

Scullin took over the D.C. gun case in July 2011 from now-retired Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. According to Scullin’s chambers, he still has approximately 15 to 20 other cases still pending in Washington, down from the 30 to 35 he was assigned over the years. Court records show the other cases before Scullin covered a broad range of subjects, including Freedom of Information Act requests, employment discrimination lawsuits and the federal Clean Air Act.

Scullin is still based in New York, traveling to Washington as needed for hearings or trials. Other federal judges who took cases in Washington included Judge James Gwin of the Northern District of Ohio, Senior Judge J. Frederick Motz of Maryland and Senior Judge Barbara Rothstein of the Western District of Washington. Lamberth said those judges are no longer being assigned new cases now that the court has filled vacant seats.

Before his appointment to the federal court in New York, Scullin was a longtime state and federal prosecutor. He also served in the U.S. Army.

The defense bar in the Northern District of New York was worried that Scullin would be pro-government and overly tough on defendants, but Menkin said those fears weren’t borne out. Scullin is “generally well thought of by the defense bar that was a little leery of him taking the bench,” he said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at On Twitter: @zoetillman.