October 15, 2015
New amicus brief to Eleventh Circuit seeking reconsideration of Johnson vagueness challenge to career-offender guideline
In this post just a few days after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines. Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is part of the guideline definition of a career offender. And a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.
But, as noted in this post a few weeks ago, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines. I considered this ruling suspect, and thanks to Carissa Hessick and David Markus, I have now been able to play a role in explaining to the full Eleventh Circuit just why. Specifically, Carissa primarily drafted and I primarily tweaked an amicus brief that David helped finalize and file today urging en banc review in Matchett. The full brief can be downloaded via SSRN, and here is how it gets started:
The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines dramatically increase a defendant’s sentencing range if she has at least two prior convictions for a “crime of violence,” which U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) defines to include crimes that “involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” As the panel in this case acknowledged, that definition is identical to the definition in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), which the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), found to be unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause.
Nevertheless, the panel in this case held that § 4B1.2(a)(2) is not unconstitutionally vague, reasoning that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines. That conclusion is inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on the vagueness doctrine and the Sentencing Guidelines. The panel’s decision also upsets the careful balance that the Supreme Court has struck between uniformity and discretion in federal sentencing after United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005). Finally, the panel decision fails to appreciate that it faced a unique situation in which a Guideline contains language identical to a federal statute declared void for vagueness by the Supreme Court. Both the narrow basis for that decision, as well as ordinary Commission practice of reviewing and revising the Sentencing Guidelines, ensure that few Guidelines will become susceptible to serious vagueness challenges. This Court accordingly should grant en banc review.
October 15, 2015 at 12:37 PM | Permalink