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February 2, 2016

Second Circuit panel laments the "Statement of Reasons" form used by sentencing judges

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting sentencing opinion handed down by the Second Circuit yesterday in US v. Pruitt, No. 14‐1921 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2016) (available here).  Authored by District Judge John Gleeson sitting by designation, here is how the Pruitt opinion gets started:

Kaylon Pruitt appeals from the May 29, 2014 judgment of conviction entered against him in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Suddaby, J.).  Pruitt was sentenced principally to a 46‐month term of imprisonment on his plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  He contends that the district court committed procedural error during his sentencing by failing to explain the reasons for the sentence, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).

We affirm but write to suggest to the United States Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States that the Statement of Reasons form included within the statutorily‐required form for the entry of criminal judgments ‐‐ Form AO 245B ‐‐ be amended to bring it into conformity with § 3553(c) and Supreme Court precedent.  Specifically, a check‐a‐box section of the form, which was checked by the district court in this case, invites sentencing judges to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range simply because the judge finds no reason to depart.   Because that both undermines the statutory obligation to state the reasons for every sentence and unlawfully presumes the reasonableness of the advisory Guidelines range, the form should be amended.

In a final notable footnote, the Pruitt opinion takes a notable shot at the US Sentencing Commission:

The form as a whole seems designed to encourage judges to sentence within the range.  A path of least resistance is clearly marked, and it is consistent with the Commission’s overall approach to sentencing in the post‐Booker era.  In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the mandatory guidelines system was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and it accordingly severed the provision of the Act that made the Guidelines mandatory.  The Sentencing Commission has since repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation requiring sentencing courts to give greater weight to the Guidelines range than Booker and its progeny permit.  The specific proposals include laws that would require sentencing judges give “substantial weight” to the advisory Guidelines range and require appellate courts to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within‐range sentences.  Thus, the objectionable part of Statement of Reasons form may reflect the law as the Commission wants it to be.

February 2, 2016 at 11:47 AM | Permalink

Comments

The next time a lawyer tells me that I am arguing the law as I wish it was and not the law as it is (which is what REAL lawyers do) I am going to respond, "yes ma'am, just like the judges on the US Sentencing Commission."

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 2, 2016 12:39:48 PM

Then there is the fact that the statement of reasons form is not disclosed to the parties in some districts. So we are defending on appeal against a record we have never seen.

Posted by: defendergirl | Feb 2, 2016 3:10:30 PM

These are mostly ridiculous criticisms, since most of the judge's explanation comes in the form of an oral pronouncement and explanation of his or her sentence. Indeed, the case law makes clear that any oral pronouncement takes precedent over the "statement of reasons" form, if what is marked on the form is contrary to the oral pronouncement. It is true that the J&C, which typically includes the statement of reasons, is sealed, but in my experience that made available to the parties after sentencing and only on the rare occasion does it contradict or is inconsistent with the sentence and explanation provided in open court.

Posted by: GrizzlyBear | Feb 3, 2016 12:02:10 AM

These are mostly ridiculous criticisms, since most of the judge's explanation comes in the form of an oral pronouncement and explanation of his or her sentence. Indeed, the case law makes clear that any oral pronouncement takes precedent over the "statement of reasons" form, if what is marked on the form is contrary to the oral pronouncement. It is true that the J&C, which typically includes the statement of reasons, is sealed, but in my experience that made available to the parties after sentencing and only on the rare occasion does it contradict or is inconsistent with the sentence and explanation provided in open court.

Posted by: GrizzlyBear | Feb 3, 2016 12:02:12 AM

Perhaps the Circuits could goad the lower courts into doing better with explanations by, you know, actually reversing sentences that aren't adequately explained? CJ Roberts during oral argument in the Molina-Martinez case last month pretty much summed up the law as it currently exists: "I don't want to know anything more about it because if the judge is within the Guidelines, he doesn't have to say anything more about it." What incentive does the Commission or the AO have to update the forms if the courts reviewing sentences don't really care?

Posted by: AnonAFPD | Feb 3, 2016 8:26:12 AM

This is Gleeson giving the middle finger on his way off the bench next month. He has always been critical of the Guidelines and has never been shy about issuing decisions that say as much.

Posted by: Greg | Feb 5, 2016 1:24:28 PM

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