August 30, 2016
Split en banc Seventh Circuit ruling, previewing coming Beckles debate before SCOTUS, applies Johnson to career-offender guidelines
As regular readers may recall (and as I like to remind everyone), in this post right 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 (now older, pre-reform version) career-offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines. As I have noted before, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that guideline, even though there was some prior rulings in some circuits that the federal guidelines could not be attacked based on traditional void-for-vagueness doctrines.
In the last year, most of the circuit courts, perhaps moved a lot by DOJ 's view, have come to rule that vagueness challenges to the guidelines are proper and have concluded that there are Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on the old career-offender guideline. But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.
As I have previously noted, I consider the ruling Matchett suspect; but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett has not led to its reconsideration. As blogged here this past June, we now have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline. Continuing my friendly ways in this setting, I had the honor and pleasure to work with Carissa Hessick and Leah Litman on this new SCOTUS Beckles amicus brief explaining why we think the US Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges and why any ruling that a guideline is unconstitutionally vague should be made retroactive.
Though folks interested in a full understanding of the Beckles case might read all the extant SCOTUS briefing, folks interested in understanding the substantive highlights and the basic arguments on both sides of this intricate and important story can now just turn to the split en banc ruling of the Seventh Circuit yesterday in US v. Hurlburt, No. 14-3611 (7th Cir. Aug. 29, 2016) (available here). Here are two key paragraphs from the start of the majority opinion (per Judge Sykes) in Hurlburt:
The residual clause in § 4B1.2(a)(2) mirrors the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), which steeply increases the minimum and maximum penalties for § 922(g) violations. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B). One year ago the Supreme Court invalidated the ACCA’s residual clause as unconstitutionally vague. Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2563 (2015). The question here is whether Johnson’s holding applies to the parallel residual clause in the career offender guideline. An emerging consensus of the circuits holds that it does. See infra pp. 16–17.
In this circuit, however, vagueness challenges to the Sentencing Guidelines are categorically foreclosed. Circuit precedent — namely, United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358, 364–65 (7th Cir. 2012) — holds that the Guidelines are not susceptible to challenge on vagueness grounds. But Tichenor was decided before Johnson and Peugh v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2072 (2013), which have fatally undermined its reasoning. Accordingly, we now overrule Tichenor. Applying Johnson, we join the increasing majority of our sister circuits in holding that the residual clause in § 4B1.2(a)(2) is unconstitutionally vague.
And here are a few key paragraphs from the dissenting opinion (per Judge Hamilton) in Hurlburt:
The doctrinal foundation of the majority opinion is inconsistent with the overall sweep of Supreme Court decisions following United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), which held the Guidelines advisory as the remedy for the Sixth Amendment problems with mandatory sentencing rules that require judicial fact‐finding. Since Booker, the Supreme Court has been trying to maintain a delicate balance, recognizing that the difference between “binding law” and “advice” depends on the different standards of appellate review. See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50–51....
If the Supreme Court extends the rationale of Peugh, as the majority does here, and embraces wholeheartedly the concept that the Guidelines are like laws, that result would be difficult to reconcile with the Booker remedy, which spared the Guidelines from Sixth Amendment challenges by making them advisory. The delicate doctrinal balance the Court has tried to maintain since Booker would be threatened by extending vagueness jurisprudence to the advisory Guidelines.
August 30, 2016 at 02:01 PM | Permalink
The dissent asks, "how can non-binding advice be unconstitutionally vague?". I don't see this as a difficult question to answer. Laws can be unconstitutional, of this there can be no dispute. Advice (legal or otherwise) can be vague, of this there can be no dispute. So why can't the intersection of these two premises form a union?
Posted by: Daniel | Aug 30, 2016 3:49:31 PM
You neglected to mention the 7th Circuit's other major (Beckles-related) holding issued the same day in Rollins -- i.e., that the commentary defining possession of a sawed-off shotgun as a crime of violence is invalid because the commentary can only expound on an actual Guideline provision, and the only Guideline provision that the sawed-off shotgun commentary expounded was the now-invalidated residual clause.
Posted by: Steve | Aug 30, 2016 5:17:39 PM