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May 26, 2006

Strong Booker work from the Sixth Circuit

Though perhaps I am biased by geographical proximity, today's opinion in  US v. Buchanan, No. 05-5544 (6th Cir. May 26, 2006) (available here), has me again thinking that the Sixth Circuit is doing some of the best post-Booker work of any of the circuits.  In Buchanan, the Court (per curiam) thoughtfully explains why a guideline sentence was reasonable with an attentiveness to the parsimony command of 3553(a).  Here's a choice snippet:

In our view, the [district] court demonstrated a model approach to sentencing in the aftermath of Booker.  The judge properly calculated the guidelines range, then carefully considered the appropriateness of that range as applied to the defendant before him in light of the concerns encompassed by the statutory factors.  Balancing competing interests, goals and individual characteristics, the court found the recommended guidelines range to be appropriate and chose to sentence Buchanan at the bottom of that range to "impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" in the § 3553(a)(2) factors. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

In challenging that conclusion, Buchanan principally argues that the district court "improperly interpreted the holding of Booker to state that a sentence within the Guideline range was presumptively reasonable" and "treated the Guidelines as presumptively reasonable." To the extent Buchanan means to say that trial judges may not give an irrebuttable presumption of reasonableness to a guidelines sentence, he is right.  Such an approach cannot be squared with Booker.  But that, quite clearly, is not what the district court did. To the extent Buchanan means to argue that courts of appeals may not give a properly calculated guidelines sentence a "rebuttable presumption of reasonableness," he is wrong, as a recent decision of the court confirms.

Adding to the Buchanan fun is a concurrence by (Ohio State's own) Judge Jeff Sutton.  Though here I am certainly biased by knowing Judge Sutton, I still feel confident saying that his discussion of post-Booker sentencing and reasonableness review and the presumption of reasonableness is perhaps the strongest post-Booker work I have seen from a circuit judge in a long time.  Every Booker fan must read Judge Sutton's concurrence, and the taste below just provides a small slice of its many virtues:

One can exercise independent judgment while still respecting the Sentencing Commission's judgment about the appropriate sentence for certain types of crime. If the trial court appreciates that the guidelines are advisory, fairly considers the § 3553(a) factors in announcing its sentence and adheres to the other procedural requirements of a reasonable sentence, that should suffice.  At some point, there must be a limit to the numbers of ways (and times) the courts of appeals apply reasonableness review that calls for trial judges to conduct new sentencing hearings.

Booker after all empowered district courts, not appellate courts.  And sentencing courts, not the Sentencing Commission, retain the ultimate authority within reason to apply the § 3553(a) factors to each criminal defendant.  A trial judge can talk about the § 3553(a) factors until he is blue in the face without giving independent judgment to the sentence at hand.  And he can reference them briefly and still exercise that judgment. T he end is not process in itself but the substantive goal that trial judges exercise independent and deliberative judgment about each sentence — making these sentences more than an algebraic equation and less than a Rorschak test.  While it made considerable sense in the immediate aftermath of Booker for our court to ensure that trial judges were aware of the discretion Booker gave them in this area and to establish some procedural requirements to guide them in exercising that discretion, we ought to return at some point to what perhaps is the most important presumption in this area — giving district courts the benefit of the doubt in reviewing their sentencing determinations.

Needless to say, I am enamored with Judge Sutton's work because his emphasis on "trial judges exercis[ing] independent and deliberative judgment about each sentence" echoes the points I have made in my recent article "Conceptualizing Booker" (available here).  In that article, I argue that Booker is "best understood not in term of vindicating the role of juries and the meaning of the Sixth Amendment's jury trial right, but rather in terms of vindicating the role of judges and the meaning of sentencing as a distinct criminal justice enterprise defined and defensible in terms of the exercise of reasoned judgment."

May 26, 2006 at 10:46 AM | Permalink


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Nice post, but it's odd that you cited the case as "US v. Buchanan, No. 05-5544 (8th Cir. May 26, 2006)" - when the post title itself says 6th, not 8th, circuit.

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | May 28, 2006 3:53:14 PM

Oops, typo. Now fixed. Thanks.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 28, 2006 5:35:51 PM

In the opinion, one of the judges is Jennifer B. Coffman. The opinion states that Coffman is a district judge "for the Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky." How is that? Are there many district judges that have been appointed to multiple districts?

Any information would be welcomed.


Posted by: Mark | May 30, 2006 11:03:46 AM

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Posted by: | Oct 14, 2008 11:14:16 PM

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