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July 28, 2014

Fascinating Fourth Circuit split over how federal sentencing problems should inform guideline interpretation

I just noticed a notable ruling by a split Fourth Circuit panel from late last week in US v. Valdovinos, No. 13-4768 (4th Cir. July 25, 2014) (available here). The precise legal issue concerning guideline interpretation in Valdovinos is not all that compelling, but how the judges dispute the right way to resolve the issue surely is.  Here is how the panel majority opinion (running 18 pages) concludes:

For the foregoing reasons, we hold that North Carolina’s legislatively mandated sentencing scheme, not a recommended sentence hashed out in plea negotiations, determines whether an offender’s prior North Carolina conviction was punishable by more than a year in prison.  Because Valdovinos’s offense of conviction was indeed punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, it qualifies as a predicate felony under Section 2L1.2(b)(1)(B) of the Guidelines [thereby enhancing his sentence].  We appreciate the fervor and policy arguments of our friend in dissent.  Indeed, we can agree with many of the latter.  What we cannot agree with is that “application of relevant precedent” does not require the result here.  Carachuri and Simmons do just that.  The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

Here is how Judge Davis's remarkable dissenting opinion (running 30 pages) gets revved up and concludes (emphasis in the original):

Our disagreement as to the outcome in this case stems, I think, less over the content and application of relevant precedent and more from a fundamental disagreement regarding our role as arbiters of a flailing federal sentencing regime.  Where, as here, we have been presented with a choice in how to interpret the interstices of federal sentencing law, and where one choice would exacerbate the harmful effects of over-20 incarceration that every cadre of social and political scientists (as well as an ever-growing cohort of elected and appointed officials, state and federal, as well as respected members of the federal judiciary) has recognized as unjust and inhumane, as well as expensive and ineffectual, this insight can and should inform our analysis.  I deeply regret the panel’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity to do so here....

Here, in a tiny corner of the chaotic morass that is federal sentencing law, Mr. Valdovinos has offered us a measured approach, to a novel issue of federal sentencing law, that adheres to Supreme Court and our relevant circuit precedents and is consistent with our values. If accepted by this panel, his argument, which is surely more than merely “clever”, see ante, at 8, would affect a tiny number of federal cases drawing legal relevance from North Carolina’s historical (and now superseded) sentencing regime. And Mr. Valdovinos’s sentence in this case likely would be reduced to a bottom guideline of 15 months, instead of the bottom guideline sentence he received, 27 months.  He’d soon be on his way home to Mexico, if not already arrived.

That the majority declines the opportunity to decide this case on the foundations discussed herein is regrettable, a choice that not only ignores the growing wisdom informed by widespread acknowledgement of our unjust federal sentencing jurisprudence, but actually hinders its progress.  Would that my friends could see that it’s a new century, complete with a host of profound and valuable insights at our avail.  I discern no compelling reason why, in the performance of our adjudicative responsibilities, which every member of the panel has unfailingly carried out to the best of our ability in this case and in full accordance with our solemn oath to “administer justice,” 28 U.S.C. § 453, we ought not to draw on these insights.

One of them is that sometimes, in our shared quest for justice under law, it requires so little of us to achieve so much.  Respectfully, I dissent.

July 28, 2014 at 11:05 AM | Permalink

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