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February 6, 2007

Revving up for Claiborne and Rita: a series and background

Two weeks from today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Claiborne and Rita, two cases that will explore what Booker really means for federal sentencing. (The briefs Claiborne and Rita are helpfully assembled by the NYCDL on this page).  Because these cases have so many dimensions, I have decided to start this series of "revving up" posts to better unpack all the interconnected elements in these cases.

In this first post I want to highlight some important potential distinctions (and similarities) in Claiborne and Rita.  Though much of the amicus briefing addresses both cases in one brief, there are notable factual and legal distinctions in the cases the Supreme Court has taken up:

1.  The facts and fact-finding:  Mario Claiborne pleaded guilty to two relatively minor drug offense and admitted to all the facts the district court considered at his sentencing; Victor Rita went to trial and the district court considered a number of disputed facts at his sentencing.  Therefore, for those most concerned about Sixth Amendment issues, Rita would appear to be the case to watch.

2.  Offenses and offenders:  Mario Claiborne's offenses involved crack offenses that Congress and the Sentencing Commission has treated very harshly; Victor Rita's offenses involve misstatements to a grand jury that seem very minor compared to the usual federal offender.  Both defendants lack any significant criminal history and seem to have positive personal attributes, though Victor Rita's background is particular notable given his long and honorable military service.

3.  Proceedings below:  Mario Claiborne received a below-guideline sentence of 15 months in prison in the district court, but the Eighth Circuit reversed this sentence as unreasonably low on the government's appeal; Victor Rita received a within-guideline sentence of 33 months in prison in the district court, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed this sentence as reasonable.  The circuit rulings are similar in their post-Booker emphasis on the guidelines, but dissimilar in their respect for district court post-Booker discretion.

In future posts, I will explore some of the constitutional and non-constitutional issues raised in these cases and also speculate about how particular Justices might view these cases.  In the meantime, I encourage reader to send me any "revving up" thoughts for possible posting.  I am eager in this series to present perspectives other than just my own on Claiborne and Rita.

February 6, 2007 at 09:23 AM | Permalink

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