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October 15, 2013

Fascination and frustration with "finality fixation" in en banc Sixth Circuit Blewett arguments

As mentioned in this recent post, I have so far resisted writing up my thoughts concerning last week's remarkable Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument on crack sentencing modifications.  I have done so in part because I wanted to be able to devote a block of time to the task, and in part because via the Sixth Circuit website folks can (and should) listen for themselves to the audio recording of the hour-long argument via this link.

Now that I have had more time to think about last week's oral argument and the broader issues in Blewett, I continue to find myself (as the title of this post suggests) fascinated and frustrated by what I will call a "finality fixation" in the context of sentencing issues.   A variation of this fixation made me a bit batty in the FSA pipeline debate that culminated in the Supreme Court's Dorsey ruling, and it also comes to play in the on-going dispute over whether the Supreme Court's Miller ruling will apply retroactively to final juve murder sentences.  I am likely fixated on this notion of a "finality fixation"  because I am currently working on a symposium article on this topic.  Still, the tenor of much of the Blewett oral argument, and other arenas where concerns about sentencing finality seem often now to trump interests in sentencing fitness and fairness, have a way of driving me to fits of fascination and frustration.

At the risk of repeating parts of the brief on Eighth Amendment issues which I helped file on behalf of the NACDL (and which is discussed and linked via this prior post), let me try here to explain what still makes me a bit nutty about cases like Blewett.  

Point 1:  Each and every federal criminal justice policy-maker in the three branches of the federal government — Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission — have all expressly and formally declared that all 100-1 ratio pre-FSA crack prison sentences were unfair, excessive and ineffectual, AND Congress enacted the "Fair Sentencing Act" to lower all federal crack sentences by raising the trigger quantity for mandatory minimum prison terms and by mandated that the US Sentencing Commission significantly lower all crack guideline prison ranges.

Point 2: When it reformed modern sentencing rules and eliminated parole release, Congress created a express statutory sentencing modification mechanism — in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) — through which offenders still in prison who were "sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission [can move for a court to] reduce the term of imprisonment," AND thousands of the most serious crack offenders sentenced before the FSA have had their prison sentences reduced through this stautory mechanism.  (This latest USSC report indicates not only that 7,300+ pre-FSA crack offenders have had their prison terms reduced by an average of 29 months, but also that thousands of these crack offenders got reduced sentences despite having extensives criminal histories and/or having used a weapon in their offense and/or having a leadership role in the offense.  See Table 6 of USSC report.)

Point 3: Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission have all ordered, authorized and/or not objected to thousands of more serious pre-FSA crack offenders being eligble for (and regularly receiving) reduced prison terms via the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2).  The Blewetts and other less serious pre-FSA crack offenders whose sentences were impacted by the 100-1 mandatory minimum terms and who are still in federal prison serving (now-repealed) pre-FSA crack sentences that every federal criminal justice policy-maker in each branch of the federal government have expressly and formally declared unfair, excessive and ineffectual are now simply arguing that they, too, should be eligible to use the same statutory sentence modification mechanism that thousands of the most serious crack offenders have already benefitted from. 

Point 4: Nobody has, to my knowledge, even tried to offer a substantive defense or penological justification as to why the Blewetts and only those less serious pre-FSA crack offenders should not even be eligible for the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2) and thus must serve the full duration of (now-repealed) pre-FSA crack sentences.  Indeed, it seem to me at least that it is not just unjust, but irrational and cruel and unusual, to require only the least serious pre-FSA crack offenders to serve out prison terms that every federal criminal justice policy-maker in each branch of the federal government have expressly and formally declared unfair, excessive and ineffectual, especially given that thousands of the most serious pre-FSA crack offenders can and have already benefitted from the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2).  (Critically, Congress has never stated nor even suggested, either expressly or implicitly, that it wanted the Blewetts and only those less serious pre-FSA crack offenders to be catergorically ineligible for sentence modification.  Indeed, I think the fair implication of the express provisions of the FSA is that all pre-FSA crack offenders should at least have a chance for sentence modification pursuant to 3582(c)(2).)

In light of all these points, in my view the only plausible rationale for denying the Blewetts and other less serious pre-FSA crack offenders a chance for sentence modification is the oft-stated, but rarely thought-through, idea of "finality."  And though I think finality is an important policy concern when defendants are attacking long-final convictions, I do not think this concept of finality historically has or now should be given great weight when a defendant is only seeking to modestly modify a sentence.  Further, when a federal defendant is seeking only a modest prison sentence modification under an express statutory provision created by Congress, the comity and separation of powers concerns that might also give finality interests extra heft are not present. 

Thus my contention that only a "finality fixation" fully accounts for why so many judges seem resistant to the various legal arguments that the Blewetts and other less serious crack offenders are making in these FSA cases.  As I see it, given the text and purposes of the FSA and the text and purposes of 3852(c)(2), the eagerness of judges to deny relief to the Blewetts and other less serious crack offenders reflects a fixation on the notion that, even in this remarkable and unique setting, concerns about sentencing finality should still consistently and conclusively trump the need to achieving sentencing fitness and fairness.  And that reality fascinates and frustrates me.

Am I silly, dear readers, to be so fascinated and frustrated by all this?  I am hoping, especially from those eager to see the Blewett panel decision undone (which I now fear a majority of the Sixth Circuit is planning to do), for responses in the comments that might help me better see what my analysis above is missing and/or why I should not be so nutty about these "finality fixation" matters.

Related posts on Blewett:

October 15, 2013 at 11:36 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Finality violates Fifth Amendment procedural due process and fairness, and Equal Protection.

With a 20% false conviction rate, it shocks the conscience, and may violate international human rights.

The defense bar should lobby for legislation allowing a review of the facts, not by appellate judges, but by investigator experts.

Finality is self dealing in that reversals adversely affect the careers of trial judges. This conflict of interest voids for illegality any decision favoring it (Rules of Judicial Conduct, Rule 1.2).

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 16, 2013 11:48:20 PM

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