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April 5, 2007

Fascinating reasonableness case from the Third Circuit

The Third Circuit today in US v. Watson, No. 05-3892 (3d Cir. Apr. 5, 2007) (available here), affirms a long (but below-guideline) sentence over the defendant's arguments that his distinct personal circumstances justified a shorter sentencing term.  Here are the basics from the panel's work:

Watson claims his sentence is unreasonable because it amounts to a life sentence for him in light of his serious medical condition and short life expectancy.  We reject this claim and find the District Court's imposition of sentence to be reasonable. Taking into account his age and serious health condition, the District Court sentenced Watson to 120 months' imprisonment, a sentence that is appreciably lower than the bottom of the recommended Guidelines range. In reaching this sentence, the District Court acknowledged that the Guidelines were advisory post-Booker, explicitly considered the relevant § 3553(a) factors, and reasonably applied those factors to the circumstances of Watson's case.

April 5, 2007 at 01:09 PM | Permalink


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The "effectively a life sentence" was argued in one of the Three-Strikes cases that went to the Supreme Court. It did not win the day.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 5, 2007 1:19:50 PM


Posted by: | Apr 5, 2007 1:28:12 PM

Federalist, There are some fundamental problems with your argument that you need to address. As you should know, the “three strikes” case you refer to is Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003). As you know, Andrade was a challenge to the “three strikes” law based on the theory that it is disproportionate under the eighth amendment.

Watson, however, does not arise in the context of an eight amendment challenge. Lawyers would have noticed this distinction. Instead, he is arguing that his sentence was “unreasonable.” To lawyers, unreasonable and “disproportionate” are too vastly different concepts. They might seem similar to a non-lawyer, but alas, they are different. See, we have “terms of art” that might sound like regular words to you, but they actually refer to entire jurisprudential concepts.

“Reasonableness” review originated under United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 261 (2005), in which, following Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004)’s holding on Sixth Amendment grounds, that certain factual findings (that increased a sentence) could not be made by a judge alone, the court held that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, that could be viewed as requiring specific factual findings would no longer be mandatory, but advisory, and further review would be for “reasonableness” grounds.

So, it is quite possible for a sentence to be unreasonable (i.e. a federal sentence improperly applying the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors, yet not disproportionate (i.e. not violative of the 8th amendment). Under this rubric, state sentences will simply never be “unreasonable.”

Moreover, since Andrade was based on an AEDPA challenge, the Supreme Court’s holding was limited to holding that the California courts rulings were not an “an unreasonable application of our clearly established law.” So, on direct appeal – i.e. from a conviction in a federal court – a similar eighth amendment challenge could fail.

While commingling terms of art might seem attract to many non-lawyers, most other people call it malpractice. Also, in many situations it is considered rude. But this depends on where you are from.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 5, 2007 3:45:50 PM

S.cotus, thanks for the lecture and the cites. I am quite aware of the difference between AEDPA, federal sentencing law and Eighth Amendment law. I was not making an argument, just noting a fact.

In any event, the "I'm old, so let me off easy" argument seems pretty weak.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 5, 2007 6:40:14 PM

The error you made was confusing 6th and 8th amendment jurisprudence.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 6, 2007 8:07:39 AM

No error and no confusion. Just an observation.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2007 9:33:16 AM

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