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July 18, 2005

Two more editorials assailing Sensenbrenner's letters

This morning brings two more editorials criticizing the remarkable letters that House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner wrote to the Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit and to AG Alberto Gonzales concerning the decision in US v. Rivera (background here, commentary here and here and collected here):

  • The Washington Post, in this editorial, calls Sensenbrenner's letter to the Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit "an action unbefitting any member of Congress" and "an intolerable affront to the independence of the courts."

  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in this editorial, highlights that the letter "speaks to the influence members of Congress can exert on the judiciary, particularly if the intervening member of Congress chairs the committee that holds the federal judiciary's purse strings."

July 18, 2005 at 09:40 AM | Permalink

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While I would hate to have Sensenbrenner interfering in one of my cases, I have yet to see any principled criticism of Sensenbrenner's letter. WHY is his letter inappropriate? If Congress can't oversee the actions of the judiciary, can Congress oversee the actions of the executive branch? If there is a difference, what PRINCIPLE distinguishes them? Also, what do Sensenbrenner's critics view of the separateness and independence of Congress? Aren't representatvies entitled, as members of a separate and independent branch of government, to express their views on matters of public importance? If not, why not? Finally, what is Congress' role in overseeing the work of the judiciary? They set salaries and other expeditures, draft the laws that the courts implement, and, most importantly, they are responsible for establishing the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts. Why would members of the judiciary NOT care about what members of Congress think about their performance? I'd sincerely appreciate thoughtful commentary.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 18, 2005 11:04:29 AM

Mark, I think the chief concern is how Sensenbrenner is exercising "oversight" in this case, though an aggressive letter in a specific case that was, in fact, correctly decided. Sensenbrenner certainly should be free to express his views and also to make reasonable inquiries of other branches, but his letter to the 7th Circuit goes well beyond doing just that.

There are over 65,000 federal sentences handed down every year, and Sensenbrenner decides to exercise his "oversight" in a case involving a low-level drug dealer getting a sentence of 8+ years instead of 10 years. Is this single sentence a matter of such dire consequence that it requires the sustained attention of the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee? Moreover, as the Post editorial highlights, Sensenbrenner was just flat wrong on the law in this case, but he sent an aggressive letter without stopping to check out this reality.

If Congress really wants to micro-manage --- uh, I mean oversee --- federal sentencing outcomes, I hope it might also start asking questions about sentences that seem much too harsh (like Jamie Olis' 24 years for his apparently minor involvement in a corporate fraud or Weldon Angelos' 55 years for a relatively minor marijuana offense). What do you think the reaction would be if, say, Rep. Maxine Waters started sending letters to the Chief Judges of the 5th and 10th Circuits urging a particular outcome in the appeals of these sentences because she believed the sentence imposed was unlawful as too long?

If these issues continue to intrigue you, check out the thoughtful comment dialogue on this over at Prawfsblawg:
http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2005/07/sensenbrenner_a.html#comments

Posted by: Doug B. | Jul 18, 2005 11:37:43 AM

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