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September 5, 2004

When did Judge Martin enter the Bizarro World?

This weekend I have had the chance to review the briefs filed in the Supreme Court last week in the Booker and Fanfan cases. Especially when reading arguments that Blakely should not apply to the federal guidelines, I am struck by how out of touch with reality the briefs seem to be. The briefs describe not the current federal guidelines system, but rather an idealized federal sentencing system — a system which could have come to pass after the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act, but which does not really exist now. See generally A Common Law for This Age of Federal Sentencing: The Opportunity and Need for Judicial Lawmaking, 11 Stanford Law & Policy Review 93 (1999).

In subsequent posts, I hope to highlight the fairy-tale nature of parts of the SG and USSC briefs, but in this space I must first wonder out loud about the amici curiae brief filed by former US District Judge John Martin on behalf of an "ad hoc group of former federal judges." The brief itself, as well as some insightful reader comments about its "Alice-in-Wonderland quality," can be found here.

bizarro_cover As I was reading this brief, I could not help but think of the question that is the title of this post: "When did Judge Martin enter the Bizarro World?" As is well-known to true Seinfeld fans, the Bizarro World is a place inhabited by imperfect duplicates of Superman and his friends who do everything backwards. (I have uploaded the cover of this comic classic, and here is a link with helpful background on the basic bizarro concept and here is a link with a lot more about the place of Bizarro in Superman lore.)

For followers of federal sentencing, former US District Judge Martin has been something of a "Man of Steel" for his courageous decision to relinquish his lifetime appointment in part, he said, to protest the unjust nature of the federal sentencing process. In this widely discussed New York Times Op-ed entitled "Let Judges Do Their Jobs" (published exactly a year to the day before Blakely was handed down), Judge Martin explained that he was resigning from the federal bench because "Congress has tried to micromanage the work of the commission and has undermined its efforts to provide judges with some discretion in sentencing or to ameliorate excessively harsh terms." Judge Martin concluded his astute criticisms of federal sentencing by saying that "I never thought that I would leave the federal bench [but] I no longer want to be part of our unjust criminal justice system."

Similarly, this report of Judge Martin's remarks at the ABA Kennedy Commission hearings highlights some of the criticisms of federal sentencing he has been sharing with audiences around the country for the last year:

John Martin ... said that a system that does not have a departure rate of "25 to 30 percent cannot do justice." Absent appropriate judicial discretion to depart from the guidelines, federal sentencing is currently imposing sentences that are too harsh, Martin argued.... Martin criticized the system for forcing judges to impose "incredibly harsh sentences" without giving them the ability to properly differentiate between offenders.

But now — apparently after a trip to the Bizarro World (or should I say the Blakely World) — Judge Martin and others assert that federal judges have "broad judicial discretion" because the federal guidelines "substantially preserve a court's sentencing discretion" in a system "more analogous to the traditional indeterminate scheme" than to the "determinate statutory scheme at issue in Blakely." Martin Brief at pp. 5-6, 9-10. Perhaps in the Bizarro World it is true, as this brief claims, that the federal guidelines "more closely resemble the regime at issue in Williams than in Blakely," id. at 14, but most federal sentencing observers and participants likely would not consider this a fair description of the real world of federal sentencing today.

Also, apparently in the Bizarro World of federal sentencing the Feeney Amendment was just an odd footnote to the guidelines' preservation of "substantial judicial discretion," and the "24% departure rate in the Second Circuit" is more representative of federal sentencing realities than the "6% rate of departure in the Fourth Circuit." See id. at 13-22. But, even these pre-Feeney Amendment statistics show that the majority of federal circuits had a departure rate under 10% in fiscal year 2002. And, of course, the Feeney Amendment further constrained judicial discretion to depart, and it reversed legislatively the Supreme Court's Koon decision emphasized throughout the Martin brief. Moreover, if federal sentencing in the Second Circuit is sound because "judicial discretion over sentencing remains both broad and meaningful in those circuits that have recognized the full extent to the Guidelines' departure power," id. at 22, why did Judge Martin need to resign? He was a judge in the Southern District of New York, which is part of the Second Circuit.

Gosh knows many wish that federal sentencing was in fact like Judge Martin and his colleagues describe in their brief, and I laud the effort to emphasize the importance of substantial judicial discretion in a well-functioning sentencing system. Indeed, in my own writings I have stressed that an improved departure mechanism (and the eliminatation of many mandatory minimum sentences) could remedy much of what ails federal sentencing. See Balanced and Purposeful Departures: Fixing a Jurisprudence that Undermines the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, 76 Notre Dame Law Review 21 (2000).

But, as too many judges and defendants and defense attorneys know too well, federal sentencing now takes place in the Feeney World, not in the Bizarro World. Thus, it is hard to fully understand why Judge Martin is writing so forcefully in defense of a system that he himself felt he had to quit because it was unjust.

September 5, 2004 at 08:09 AM | Permalink

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