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August 13, 2004

Judge Goodwin speaks about alternative sentencing

Though I am still in transit home from a week away, I have the benefits of a fast internet connection tonight and not a moment too soon. There is a lot of end of the week news to report (in posts to follow), but at the top of the list is (another) fantastic opinion from Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia in US v. Johnson, No 6:04-00042 (S.D. W. Va. Aug. 13, 2004). In Johnson, Judge Goodwin explains why he declines to follow the Fourth Circuit's recommendation in Hammoud (background here) to impose an alternative sentence treating the guidelines as advisory after imposing a first sentence under the guidelines. The full opinion, which can be downloaded below, is a wonderful read. Here's a taste:

To deal with uncertainty wrought by Blakely, a few courts have suggested that imposing alternative sentences may prevent further disarray once Blakely's effect on the Guidelines is more clearly established. These courts cite no authority for the proposition that a court may impose an alternative sentence. Presumably, the validity of these alternative sentences depends upon some inherent power of the sentencing court to act in the interests of judicial economy.

Although preserving judicial resources is a worthy goal, it is not equal to the goal of maintaining confidence in our justice system. People must believe — and courts must assure — that judgments depriving citizens of their liberty are required by law and lack neither finality nor certainty. Confidence in the system is undermined when a judge treats a defendant like an unruly child ordered to go to his room and stay there until the courts determine a just punishment. I respectfully decline, without binding direction, to play the role of wavering disciplinarian.

Hypothetical sentencing is an abdication of my duty to decide legal issues. It is surely unprincipled, if not unlawful, for lower courts to describe alternatives and present those alternatives to a higher court for a final, binding decision. Summarizing the relevant legal arguments and offering possible conclusions is not judging. Judicial decision-making, like the adversarial process upon which it stands, thrives on the pressure of reaching — and explaining — a single result. Formulating multiple-choice questions to be answered by a higher court is an inappropriate and injudicious substitute for deciding a case.

Here, of course, the Fourth Circuit has made a decision that Blakely does not apply to the Guidelines. It has also recommended, however, that this court give an alternative sentence that would presumably take effect if the Supreme Court disagrees. My concern is that district courts and appellate courts must routinely make decisions that may be affected by cases pending on appeal before higher courts. If the function of lower courts is reduced to offering up a this-or-that option for later judgment, then the intellectual rigor promoted by the pressure to decide the issue is eliminated. Put simply, judicial decision-making is an act best performed without a net.

Great stuff (and there is more in the full opinion) which merits lots of attention:
Download us_v. Johnson (Goodwin opinion re no alternative sentence).wpd
UPDATE: Here's a link to a pdf version of Johnson if the WordPerfect version is giving you fits.

August 13, 2004 at 07:56 PM | Permalink

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