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April 17, 2012

Basic preview of today's SCOTUS arguments on crack sentencing rules

This morning the Supreme Court will hear consolidated argument in the Fair Sentencing Act statutory interpretation cases Hill and DorseyThis new article in the Los Angeles Times, headlined "Supreme Court to weigh crack cocaine sentences," provides a very effective basic preview, and it begins this way:

Nearly two years ago, President Obama signed into law a "fair sentencing" act to reduce the long prison terms meted out to people who were caught with small amounts of crack cocaine. But the law did not make clear whether it should apply to cases that were pending when the measure was signed.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will consider whether the lighter sentences apply to hundreds of cases in the pipeline when the law was signed on Aug. 3, 2010.

The issue is complicated because the Justice Department and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. changed their views on the matter. Shortly after Obama signed the law, Holder's department said the changes applied only to new crimes. Last summer, however, after prodding by Senate Democrats, Holder switched his position and said the new rules for crack cocaine prison terms applied to all who were sentenced after Obama signed the bill, even if their crimes took place two or three years before.

For a pair of Chicago-area defendants, the change could mean the difference between serving about three to four years in prison or 10 years behind bars. "It would be unconscionable" to sentence defendants under the law Congress had repealed as too harsh, said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said many judges balked at using the stiff mandatory sentences after Congress changed them. "The courts were ahead of the Justice Department on this," she said.

A few recent posts on these SCOTUS cases:

April 17, 2012 at 08:40 AM | Permalink

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Comments

So since the DOJ has reversed their position and are no longer opposed to the new guidelines being applied retroactively, does that mean that they aren't going to be arguing before SCOTUS? Is such a thing possible?

Posted by: Guy | Apr 17, 2012 11:04:02 AM

Guy --

The government is going to argue affirmatively in favor of the convict. I kid you not. The Court had to appoint an amicus, the brilliant Miguel Estrada, to defend the Seventh Circuit's judgment.

I agree with the article's statement that DOJ switched sides because of political pressure from Congressional Democrats. Neither the FSA nor the Saving Statute changed one iota in the last two years, but the politicking did.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 17, 2012 12:01:00 PM

Bill --

Thanks for the info re the procedure of it. It seemed very strange to me that they would just have one side arguing at scotus, so it makes sense that the Court would appoint someone to represent the government's former position.

And even be that as it may that politics is the culprit behind the DOJ pulling a 180, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

Cheers.

Posted by: Guy | Apr 17, 2012 2:22:04 PM

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