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February 26, 2009

Justice Breyer talking up Rule of Lenity when interpreting statutes with mandatory minimum sentencing terms

As detailed in this recent post, the Supreme Court yesterday heard oral argument in Flores-Figueroa v. United States, which deals with the reach of the federal aggravated identity theft statute.  When first scanning the oral argument transcript, these comments from Justice Breyer jumped off the page:

In the case of mandatory-minimum sentences, there is a particularly strong argument for a Rule of Lenity with bite.  And that is because mandatory minimums, given the human condition, inevitably throw some people into the box who shouldn't be there.  And if this person should be there and we put him outside, the judge could give him the same sentence anyway.

So the harm by mistakenly throwing a person outside the box through the Rule of Lenity to the government is small.  The harm to the individual by wrongly throwing him into the box is great.  The Rule of Lenity is, therefore, limited to a very small subset of cases where it has particular force, but this is one of them.

Oral argument transcript in Flores-Figueroa at 42. 

I sure hope these sentiments make their way into whatever opinion is written in Flores-Figueroa.  I have long thought that various defendant-oriented statutory canons and constitutional principles should have more force and impact in cases involving mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  It is nice to see Justice Breyer articulate this point at oral argument, and it would be very valuable to have this idea find expression in the Court's jurisprudence.

How Appealing has at this link some of the major press coverage of the entire argument in Flores-Figueroa.

February 26, 2009 at 09:45 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"It is nice to see Justice Breyer articulate this point at oral argument, and it would be very valuable to have this idea find expression in the Court's jurisprudence."

I totally agree with you this idea is such valuable, hope there are some other law makers like Justice Beyer

Posted by: European Justice | Aug 2, 2009 11:19:58 AM

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