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January 3, 2017

Eleventh Circuit Judge, and SCOTUS short-lister, William Pryor named Acting Chair of the (now hobbled) US Sentencing Commission

Because of the rumored short-list of the short-list of possible SCOTUS nominees, this press release coming today from the US Sentencing Commission might get a bit more than usual amoung of attention. Here is the full text of the release, the last paragraph of which is really the most important:

The United States Sentencing Commission announced that Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. will serve as Acting Chair of the Commission, as the term of the former Chair, Chief Judge Patti B. Saris expired at the end of the 114th congressional session.

In his first statement as Acting Chair, Judge Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said, “I am honored to act as Acting Chair of the Commission and commend the exemplary leadership of Chief Judge Saris during her term. I look forward to our continued work to further the Commission’s critical mission of developing federal sentencing policies that further the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”

The terms of Judge Charles R. Breyer (former Vice Chair) and Commissioner Dabney L. Friedrich also expired.  By statute, commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and serve six-year terms. At least three of the commissioners must be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party. Remaining commissioners include Commissioner Rachel E. Barkow, Commissioner J. Patricia Wilson Smoot (ex-officio, U.S. Parole Commission), and Commissioner Michelle Morales (ex-officio, U.S. Department of Justice).  The Commission must have at least four voting Commissioners for a quorum.

Because ex-officio members of the USSC do not have voting rights, the current Commission is now officially two members short of a quorum and five members short in total.  For those eager to see continued federal sentencing reforms and improvement, this is a very big deal and a very big problem.

I am hopeful (but not especially optimistic) that the incoming Trump Administration might make staffing the USSC with new Commissioners a "first 100 days" priority.  I am not sure whether having Judge Pryor as Acting Chair and/or having him be a possible SCOTUS pick makes staffing the USSC more or less likely.  I suppose time will tell.

January 3, 2017 at 02:51 PM | Permalink


I, on the other hand, hope that Trump declines to nominate anyone for as long as possible.

Posted by: USPO | Jan 3, 2017 8:37:40 PM

Do you fear, USPO, that a Trump-filled USSC will put forward guideline amendments that will make federal sentencing worse?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 4, 2017 10:38:18 AM

The Sentencing Commission lacks a quorum? SAY IT AIN"T SO!!!

Posted by: I Care | Jan 4, 2017 10:45:40 AM


I always fear, no matter who is in the White House, that the Commission will pass amendments that make sentencing more complicated, especially because they continue to inject new "terms of art" into the guidelines that will result in endless ligation. This is especially vexing now that the guidelines are going to be subject to vagueness challenges(at least that's my assumption given that the Govt. appears to have conceded in Beckles that the guidelines are subject to such challenges).

Whether Trump will appoint people who would move toward making the guidelines generally harsher is hard to predict, but it's certainly a concern.

Posted by: USPO | Jan 4, 2017 5:18:03 PM

Very helpful explanation, USPO, and I feel your doctrinal pain.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 4, 2017 7:10:37 PM

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