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September 6, 2004

Great brief, wrong case: the three Senators' brief

In comments, Thomas Yerbich quite succinctly summarizes the amicus brief filed by US Senators Orrin G. Hatch, Edward M. Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein (available here):

The Senators' amicus brief provides an excellent recap of the history of the Sentencing Reform Act and its intended remedial effect. Notably absent from the Senators' amicus brief is any discussion whatsoever of the Sixth Amendment, in fact it is not even mentioned!

Indeed, I was struck while reading the brief that it would be an extremely effective in a case challenging mandatory minimum sentences or the provisions of the Feeney Amendment. The three Senators' brief stresses that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA) "intended sentencing judges to have flexibility to move a sentence both upward and downward within the applicable guidelines range based on an individualized consideration of the offender and his offense and, in unusual cases, to depart upward or downward outside of the guidelines range." Yet mandatory minimums and the Feeney Amendment do far more to undermine this intended "flexibility" and "individualized consideration" than would a holding in Booker and Fanfan that defendants have a right to have proven beyond a reasonable doubt facts requiring enhanced sentences.

Of course, Justices Kennedy and Breyer both appreciate that mandatory minimums undermine the laudable goals of the SRA. Justice Kennedy in his Koon decision stressed the importance of judicial departure authority within the SRA, and he has long assailed mandatory minimums as "unwise and unjust." (See, most recently, this important speech to the ABA last year.) Similarly, Justice Breyer has long lamented the impact of mandatory minimum statutes on the operation of the guidelines system he helped create:

[S]tatutory mandatory sentences prevent the Commission from carrying out its basic, congressionally mandated task: the development, in part through research, of a rational, coherent set of punishments.... Every system, after all, needs some kind of escape valve for unusual cases.... For this reason, the Guideline system is a stronger, more effective sentencing system in practice.

In sum, Congress, in simultaneously requiring Guideline sentencing and mandatory minimum sentencing, is riding two different horses. And those horses, in terms of coherence, fairness, and effectiveness, are traveling in opposite directions. [In my view, Congress should] abolish mandatory minimums altogether.


Speech of Justice Stephen Breyer, Federal Sentencing Guidelines Revisited (Nov. 18, 1998), reprinted at 11 Fed. Sent. Rep. 180, 184-85 (1999). Indeed, Senator Orrin Hatch himself has long been on record noting the major faults of mandatory sentences and calling for a complete reexamination of the issue. See Orrin G. Hatch, The Role of Congress in Sentencing: The United States Sentencing Commission, Mandatory Minimum Sentences, and the Search for a Certain and Effective Sentencing System, 28 Wake Forest L. Rev. 185 (1993).

In other words, as I have stressed in my own writings, the SRA was a great piece of legislation, but the federal sentencing system in practice has not in fact achieved its laudable goals. That is why I have suggested here that there is a strong case to be made that applying Blakely to the federal guidelines would in fact help give effect to the intent of Congress in enacting the SRA.

The three Senators' brief does not even mention the Sixth Amendment perhaps because it hard to argue that respecting defendants' rights to have facts proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt itself undermines the goals of sentencing reform. Of course, Justice Scalia and four other Justices obviously understand this when they stress that Blakely "is not about whether determinate sentencing is constitutional, only about how it can be implemented in a way that respects the Sixth Amendment." And these realities in part explain why I have speculated here that Justices Kennedy and Breyer may join the "Blakely five" before any Justice in that group shrinks away from carrying the Blakely principle to its logical conclusion.

September 6, 2004 at 09:04 AM | Permalink

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