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March 6, 2017

SCOTUS rules in Beckles that federal advisory guidelines are not subject to Due Process vagueness challenges

The Supreme Court this morning issued a big opinion concerning the operation of and challenges to the federal sentencing guidelines in Beckles v. United States, No. No. 15–8544 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the opinion authored by Justice Thomas gets started: 

At the time of petitioner’s sentencing, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines included a residual clause defining a “crime of violence” as an offense that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §4B1.2(a)(2) (Nov. 2006) (USSG).   This Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague. Petitioner contends that the Guidelines’ residual clause is also void for vagueness.  Because we hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, we reject petitioner’s argument.

After the oral argument tone in this case, I am not surprised to see this result. But I expect I may have more to say about the particulars of this Beckles ruling in the coming hours and days.  To begin, I think the sentiments in the closing section of the opinion of the Court best accounts for the Beckles outcome:

In addition to directing sentencing courts to consider the Guidelines, see §3553(a)(4)(A), Congress has directed them to consider a number of other factors in exercising their sentencing discretion, see §§3553(a)(1)–(3), (5)–(7). The Government concedes that “American judges have long made th[e] sorts of judgments” called for by the §3553(a) factors “in indeterminate-sentencing schemes, and this Court has never understood such discretionary determinations to raise vagueness concerns.” Brief for United States 42. Because the §3553 factors — like the Guidelines — do not mandate any specific sentences, but rather guide the exercise of a district court’s discretion within the applicable statutory range, our holding today casts no doubt on their validity.

Holding that the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, however, would cast serious doubt on their validity. Many of these other factors appear at least as unclear as §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause. For example, courts must assess “the need for the sentence imposed” to achieve certain goals — such as to “reflect the seriousness of the offense,” “promote respect for the law,” “provide just punishment for the offense,” “afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct,” and “provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training . . . in the most effective manner.” §3553(a)(2). If petitioner were correct that §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause were subject to a vagueness challenge, we would be hard pressed to find these factors sufficiently definite to provide adequate notice and prevent arbitrary enforcement.

The Government tries to have it both ways, arguing that the individualized sentencing required by the other §3553(a) factors is different in kind from that required by the Guidelines. “An inscrutably vague advisory guideline,” it contends, “injects arbitrariness into the sentencing process that is not found in the exercise of unguided discretion in a traditional sentencing system.” Reply Brief for United States 10–11. But it is far from obvious that the residual clause implicates the twin concerns of vagueness any more than the statutory command that sentencing courts impose a sentence tailored, for example, “to promote respect for the law.” §3553(a)(2)(A). And neither the Guidelines nor the other §3553 factors implicate those concerns more than the absence of any guidance at all, which the Government concedes is constitutional.

The Government also suggests that the Guidelines are not like the other §3553(a) factors “because they require a court to decide whether the facts of the case satisfy a legal standard in order to derive a specific numerical range.” Id., at 22. But that does not distinguish the other sentencing factors, which require courts to do the same thing. Section 3553(a) states that district courts “shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in [§3553(a)(2)].” In fact, the Guidelines generally offer more concrete advice in imposing a particular sentence and make it easier to review whether a court has abused its substantial discretion. There is no sound reason to conclude that the Guidelines — but not §3553(a)’s other sentencing factors — are amenable to vagueness review.

March 6, 2017 at 10:08 AM | Permalink


There remain a big chunk of pre-Booker cases that are alive. I'm aware of a fair number that were filed before the AEDPA deadline. While Beckles is definitely bad news for the post-Booker folks, I think it's actually a strong case to say that the mandatory Guidelines are susceptible to vagueness challenges.

Posted by: Adam Stevenson | Mar 6, 2017 2:57:00 PM

Excellent and important point, Adam!

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 6, 2017 3:53:10 PM

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