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September 12, 2018

As Booker enters its adolescence, do we really know much of substance about substantive reasonableness review?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by a couple of recent reasonableness rulings from the Sixth and Tenth Circuits that seemed noteworthy: in US v. Heard, No. 17-3062 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2018) (available here), a split Sixth Circuit panel upholds an above-guideline sentences over a spirited dissent in firearm cases; in US v. Staples, No. 17-2068 (10th Cir. Aug 27, 2018)  (available here), a unanimous Tenth Circuit panel reverses a below-guideline sentences in a fraud case.  These decisions reflect one feature of nearly all criminal appeals, namely that the government wins and the defendant loses.  But I was inspired to pose the question in the title of this post because these these decisions also reinforce my sense that, even 13 years into the post-Booker world, there is still very little jurisprudential substance to substantive reasonableness review.  These decisions represent data points, but not much more.

In this post some months ago, I provided a string cite of commentary  documenting the mess that reasonableness review has become in the circuits.   I will provide this list again in part because it support my belief that federal sentencing law and practice would benefit significantly from the Supreme Court's further engagement with reasonableness review.  See, e.g.,  Carrie Leonetti, De Facto Mandatory: A Quantitative Assessment Of Reasonableness Review After Booker, 66 DePaul L. Rev. 51 (2016) (lamenting disparate circuit approaches to reasonableness review creating a “patchwork of guideline sentencing in which defendants’ sentences are dictated more by the happenstance of geography than by the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence”); Note, More Than a Formality: The Case for Meaningful Substantive Reasonableness Review, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 951 (2014) (discussing a “number of notable circuit splits” concerning reasonableness review); D. Michael Fisher, Still in Balance? Federal District Court Discretion and Appellate Review Six Years After Booker, 49 Duq. L. Rev. 641, 649-61 (2011) (noting that “the courts of appeals have differed over how to apply the [reasonableness] standard” and “have split on several important legal questions”).

As long-time readers know, I used to regularly report on circuit reasonableness rulings in the years after Booker and the follow up cases of RitaGall and Kimbrough.  But now I barely notice these cases and rarely report on them, because there seems to me little significance in individual data points absent broader jurisprudential developments.  But maybe I am missing something, and thus the question here posed.

September 12, 2018 at 07:01 PM | Permalink


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