Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Judge will rule next week in right-to-hunt case
Hunting advocates and the National Rifle Association are among those watching the case.
Following final arguments Tuesday in Nelson County Circuit Court, Judge Michael Gamble said he will issue a written opinion June 30 on whether a constitutional amendment that protects Virginians' right to hunt should apply to shooting at clay targets on an exclusive hunting preserve. Orion Estate is accusing the Nelson County Board of Supervisors of violating its right to hunt by denying a zoning request for a shotgun sports center.
The center would allow members of the 450-acre hunting preserve to hone their hunting skills by shooting at clay and plastic targets thrown through the air by machines.
During three days of testimony in April and again Tuesday in oral arguments, the operation was defended by Orion as an integral part of hunting and dismissed by the county as a commercial venture unfit for a rural tract of land that borders the James River near Wingina.
Gamble asked few questions and gave no hint of how he might rule in the case, the first of its kind in Virginia since voters decided in 2000 to enshrine the rights to "hunt, fish and harvest game" in the state's constitution.
Virginia is one of 12 states to make hunting and fishing a constitutional right, and others are considering such measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But so far, lawyers in the case say, no judge has interpreted that right.
Gamble's courtroom was crowded Tuesday with spectators and reporters, as the case has drawn attention far and near from hunting advocates, the National Rifle Association and nearby residents concerned about noise and safety.
Because the hunting amendment is brand new in constitutional terms, Gamble need not worry - like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia often does - about determining what the framers of the document had in mind, said Orion attorney Anthony Troy.
"It's a modern, 21st-century amendment and we don't even have to get into the Scalia debate at all," Troy said.
The way Orion reads the constitution, shooting at clay targets falls under the amendment as both a warm-up to hunting and as a substitute for the real thing.
With increased urbanization, loss of wildlife habitat and activism by animal rights groups, the argument goes, more and more hunters are finding it easier to go to preserves such as Orion that simulate hunting with clay targets.
Nelson County's response: Hunting should be defined simply as the pursuit of live game.
"There will be great confusion in Virginia" if Orion were to prevail, county attorney John Zunka said. If clay target shooting is constitutionally protected because it is a preparation for hunting, the county contends, so too would be shopping for a shotgun or even leafing through a hunting catalog.