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November 30, 2005

Wisdom from Judge Carnes on post-Booker appellate review

Wednesdays are often busy in the federal circuit courts (even around holidays), and today I already see notable criminal rulings from the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits.  But the decision of the day — perhaps of the month — comes from the Eleventh Circuit in US v. Williams, No. 05-11318 (11th Cir. Nov. 30, 2005) (available here).

The per curiam opinion for the court in Williams is itself notable because a dozen pages are needed to resolve the "meaning of the word 'any' as it is used in US Sentencing Guideline § 2K2.1(c)(1)."  (Amazingly, this single "any" has produced two distinct circuit splits — that right, two circuit splits(!) — over the application of the federal guidelines.)  What makes Williams truly special is Judge Carnes' concurrence, which is chock full of wise insights about post-Booker appellate review.

To appreciate his fine work, Judge Carnes' opinion in Williams should be read in full.  Here is an sample (with cites omitted) to encourage review of the whole work:

The Booker decision did not free us from the task of applying the Sentencing Guidelines, some provisions of which are mind-numbingly complex and others of which are just mind-numbing.  Because the post-Booker regime requires "accurate advice" from the guidelines, we have held that the guidelines must be applied correctly.  The sword dance must still be done.  Its steps can be intricate and the music unrelenting, as this case shows....

This case is a good example of how we are spending our sentence review time.  In the course of reviewing the sentence in this simple-crime case, we have decided three guidelines issues, at least two of which are difficult enough to have produced circuit splits.... 

Therein runs a thread of madness through the method now in place.  We review and decide close, hair-splitting interpretive issues arising from guidelines that are only advisory, and we set aside sentences even though the district court, once its "misunderstanding" of the guidelines is corrected, is free to impose the same sentence, and usually will do so.....  If the federal court system had endless resources or light dockets, the post-Booker system of sentence review would make more sense, but the judicial world we inhabit is one of scarce resources burdened by heavy demands.  Of course, neither this Court nor the district courts can change the Booker guidelines sentencing regime and the appellate review system that applies to it.

November 30, 2005 at 03:40 PM | Permalink


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