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January 21, 2011

Long, thoughtful (and wrong?) new opinion on FSA application to pending cases

As regular readers may recall, aided by a helpful lawyer in NYC litigating a Fair Sentencing Act issue for a defendant awaiting initial sentencing in a multi-defendant case, I had the opportunity and honor to serve as an amicus in an SDNY case dealing with the issue of applying the FSA's provisions to not-yet-sentenced defendants.  Yesterday, US District Judge Kenneth Karas issued a 58-page opinion in US v. Santana, No. 09-CR-1022 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2011) (available for download below), which concludes this way:

The Court recognizes that over the course of the last two decades there has been growing belief among practitioners, courts, commentators, and many others that the 100-to-1 ratio that Congress hastily adopted in 1986 was based on insufficient facts and has resulted in severe sentences that have been disproportionately imposed on certain groups of individuals.  By enacting the FSA, Congress appears to have responded, at least in part, to this consensus. The Court also appreciates the desire of many, including the district judges who must impose mandatory sentences, that there be no more sentences based on the 100-to-1 ratio, and that this sentiment may explain the view that the FSA should govern all sentences going forward.... Indeed, at oral argument, counsel for Defendants, expressing similar sentiment, urged the Court to find some “play in the authority” to apply the FSA to this case. (December 8, 2010 Oral Argument Tr. 51.)  But, here, in light of the Saving Statute, “we are not dealing with optional rules of statutory construction.” Holiday, 683 A.2d at 79.  It is a law that like any other must be applied as written.  And while the goal of those who wish to immediately abandon the old sentencing regime in favor of that adopted in the FSA is understandable, it is a suggestion “addressed to the wrong governmental branch.” Marrero, 417 U.S. at 664.  As Justice Brennan has explained: “Punishment for federal crimes is a matter for Congress, subject to judicial veto only when the legislative judgment oversteps constitutional bounds.” Id.

Here, Congress easily could have made clear its intent, if it wanted to, that the FSA apply to all individuals who had not yet been sentenced.... But here, Congress adopted no such clear provision.

Of course, it remains a possibility that Congress still could enact legislation expressly applying the FSA to all those not sentenced as of August 3, 2010.  Or, it is always possible that the Executive Branch, as Senators Durbin and Leahy have suggested, could exercise its discretion, through its charging decisions, to avoid continued imposition of sentences under the old law.  But, in the end, it is not the obligation or province of the courts to fill in the gaps left by the other branches of government.  Therefore, for the reasons stated herein, the pending motions to apply the FSA to this case are DENIED.

Download Santana FSA opinion

As my amicus filings in the Santana case reveal, I do not think this is the right result. But I remain grateful to have had a chance to participate in this litigation, and I am impressed that a busy district court judge found the time and energy to write at such great length on this important (but transitory) sentencing issue.

Some posts on the Santana litigation and recent related cases:

January 21, 2011 at 03:18 PM | Permalink


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I think you are right when you say this. Hats off man, what a superlative knowledge you have on this subject…hope to see more work of yours.

Posted by: Health Blog | Jan 26, 2011 7:16:12 AM

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