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September 15, 2004

Circuit contrasts: variations in appellate justice

As detailed in the three Senators' amicus brief filed in Booker and Fanfan (available here, commentary here), guideline reforms sought to "eliminate the intolerable disparities that had plagued the federal sentencing system." Yet today we have stunning disparities in the application of the federal guidelines in the wake of Blakely. Even putting aside all the noted variations from district to district and case to case, on the circuit level alone on just the most basic Blakely question we have a five-way circuit split:

1. Blakely has been deemed, at least for the time being, wholly inapplicable to the federal guidelines in the Second, Fifth, and Eleventh Circuits;
2. Blakely has been deemed, at least for the time being, inapplicable to the federal guidelines, but an order recommending the announcement of an alternative sentence is in place in the Fourth and Sixth Circuits;
3. Blakely has been deemed applicable to the federal guidelines, but severability questions have been left open, in the Seventh Circuit;
4. Blakely has been deemed applicable to the federal guidelines and the guidelines deemed severable in the Ninth Circuit; and
5. Blakely's impact on the federal guidelines is presently unresolved in the First, Third, Eighth, Tenth and DC Circuits.

And beyond these critical basics, there are and surely will continue to be variable rulings on "smaller" Blakely questions like plain error, waiver, restitution, indictment practices and so on and so on (see general background here and here and here)

Moreover, as all good lawyers know, circuit differences are reflected not only in doctrine, but also in attitude. Indeed, I sometimes perceive a certain tone in some Blakely rulings, and this tone often varies from circuit to circuit. Two cases handed down yesterday perhaps provide an example of what I mean.

In US v. Pree, 2004 WL 2039274 (7th Cir. Sept. 14, 2004), the Seveth Circuit seems to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve a Blakely claim for a defendant who did not even raise it:

As a final matter, we address an issue not raised by the parties — the constitutionality of the sentencing enhancement Ms. Pree received for obstruction of justice. Ms. Pree's case was briefed and argued prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely [and this court's holding] in Booker that enhancements imposed by the court without a jury finding violate the Sixth Amendment.

Ms. Pree does not address to this court, nor can we find evidence in the record to indicate, that she addressed before the district court the constitutionality of her sentencing enhancement. In light of the sea change in federal sentencing law wrought by Blakely and Booker, we think it appropriate to take note of the possibility of an unconstitutional sentencing enhancement. Given the precedent in this circuit prior to Blakely, we think it would be unfair to characterize Ms. Pree as having waived a challenge to the validity of her sentencing enhancement.

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Booker and will consider, in the very near future, the application of Blakely to the United States Sentencing Guidelines and therefore the correctness of this court's decision in Booker. We therefore shall stay our mandate in this case until the Supreme Court has rendered its decision in Booker. Within fourteen days of the Supreme Court's decision in Booker, each party may submit a memorandum presenting its views on the application of that decision to this case.

[Footnote 17. It appears that Ms. Pree's enhanced sentence will be completed prior to the decision of the Supreme Court. Any matter with respect to bail should be addressed to the district court.]

But in Burrell v. US, 2004 WL 2039420 (2d Cir. Sept. 14, 2004), the Second Circuit seems to go to extraordinary lengths in a footnote to extinguish an arguable Blakely claim:

Despite the district court's failure to award a certificate of appealability on the Apprendi point, Burrell argues it in a pro se supplemental brief filed with this court. We may, of course, amend a COA to include an issue not certified by the district court ... [but we] decline to do that in this case because (1) Burrell's Apprendi claim is foreclosed by our [prior Apprendi] decisions ... which we have recently declined to reconsider despite the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely; (2) even if Burrell could establish an Apprendi error in his case, the law is clear that Apprendi cannot be applied retroactively on a collateral challenge to a conviction; and (3) an Apprendi error would, in any event, be harmless in this case because it would not result in the reversal of Burrell's conviction, only resentencing, since (a) he has completed serving the originally imposed term of incarceration, and (b) it is the fact of his conviction not the length of his sentence that now affects his deportation.

Of course, the defendant in Pree obviously has a much, much stronger case on the merits than the defendant in Burrell, and different circuits might have made similar rulings in each individual case. But I do think these cases help highlight the possibility that general attitudes about Blakely claims may impact future cases as much as the intricacies of certain doctrines.

September 15, 2004 at 11:56 AM | Permalink


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General attitudes about ALL claims impact ALL cases as much as the intricacies of the relevant doctrines. It is just that over time, attitudes become generally accepted ("conventional wisdom", or "standard interpretation", or "best practices", etc.). Most movement in this regard is so slow that it is nearly imperceptable. Blakely and Apprendi, however, are examples of more sudden reversions to original intent after slowly drifting away over the years. Over time, we will all wonder what was so complex after all.

BTW, this is yet another argument against unpublished opinions, IMHO.

Posted by: Jeannie | Sep 15, 2004 1:12:00 PM

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