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June 4, 2007

Shouldn't SCOTUS just do Rita right and go from there?

As noted here, the Supreme Court officially took the Claiborne case off its docket through this per curiam opinion that vacates the Eighth Circuit's opinion in the wake of Mario Claiborne's death (basics here).  But this expected move now raises a host of questions about what the Justices will and should do with the important issues raised and extensively briefed in Claiborne

As detailed here, Claiborne's lawyer has suggested an alternative case, Beal v. U.S. (docket 06-8498), for the Court to take up in order to be able to address directly reasonableness review in a case involving a below-guideline sentence.  I believe the SG's office has not yet officially weighed in on this suggestion, though perhaps something will be filed soon in the wake of the Court's official ruling in Claiborne.

For a variety of reasons, I hope SCOTUS does not take up and rush through another case to replace the Claiborne case.  Claiborne involved a distinct set of facts built on a unique lower court record.  Though perhaps the Justices had a view of the Claiborne case that was not focused on its unique facts, all sound sentencing determinations are necessarily fact- and context-specific.  (Indeed, as I argued in various amicus filings in Claiborne and Rita (available here), 3553(a) can be understood to demand fact- and context-specific reasoned judgments by district courts at initial sentencings and by circuit courts applying reasonableness review.)

Though lower courts certainly need additional SCOTUS guidance on how to deal with below-guideline arguments and sentences, the Justices still can and should address the most pressing post-Booker issues through a complete ruling in Rita.  Though the Roberts Court has tended toward narrow rulings, I believe both judicial modesty and doctrinal clarity can be best served if the Court provides a thorough analysis and ruling in Rita and then just waits to consider and address other post-Booker issues through the Court's standard review procedures.

June 4, 2007 at 03:57 PM | Permalink


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I think a decision in Rita alone might well leave us with de facto mandatory guidelines, for another year at least. My bet had been that the Court was going to affirm Rita (holding that a w/in-guidelines sentence is presumptively to be affirmed) and reverse Claiborne (holding that a w/out-guidelines sentence is not suspect). If I'm right, and they put out Rita only, just imagine the pressure on District Courts to sentence within the guidelines, and imagine all the (further) appellate decisions making the guidelines a near-mandatory norm. Now, if you think that Rita will be reversed, it's a different story.

Posted by: Sam Heldman | Jun 4, 2007 4:31:07 PM

I'm with Sam. I don't see how the Court can rule in Rita in a way that help us understand non-Guidelines sentencing review.

I'd appreciate an answer to a question: Why did the Supreme Court order the Court of Appeals' decision to be vacated? Is that an ordinary outcome when a petitioner dies? Should we read anything into the fact that the Court not only dismissed the case but ordered vacation of CoA decision?

Thanks for all thoughts.


Posted by: Mark | Jun 4, 2007 4:42:58 PM

Agree with Sam. If one thinks the big problem with post-Booker federal sentencing is that the federal circuit courts are not according federal district courts the requisite freedom to sentence below the Guidelines range in appropriate cases, then Claiborne was the more important of this Term's "reasonableness" duo. Indeed, the atmospheric influence of a solitary affirmance in Rita may worsen the problem, even though Rita presents a distinct issue: are within-Guidelines sentences presumptively reasonable?

True, a reversal in Rita might have opposite atmospheric effects. If the Guidelines are not presumptively reasonable, why should district courts have to go to great lengths to justify departing from them? But my hunch, like Sam's, is that the Court will affirm in Rita even if it would have reversed in Claiborne. An affirmance in Rita is just not that much of a stretch from the Booker remedial opinion itself, alas. As for the Claiborne issue, I suspect that it will take an actual SCOTUS opinion, squarely affirming as reasonable a below-Guidelines sentence, before some of the circuits will start to back off.

I'd like to see the Court find an appropriate successor case soon and resolve the issue. Perhaps Beal could be that case. Doug, setting aside the institutional "take it slow" arguments made in your post (which I don't dismiss, though I also don't think they should prevail here, since the Court has already taken the plunge by granting cert in Claiborne) -- do you or your readers have thoughts about whether the facts or procedural history in Beal would make it a worse vehicle than Claiborne for addressing the "below-Guidelines reasonableness" issue?

Posted by: Mike O'Shea | Jun 4, 2007 7:25:46 PM

Isn't the real problem post-Booker the *above Guideline* sentences? While I sympathize with those that abhor the consistent COA reversals of below-Guideline variances, there are far more instances of district courts exceeding Guideline ranges and then "supporting" those variances through judicial fact-finding. The 10th Circui's Allen case is just one notable example. Ultimately, I think the Court will need to do a trilogy of cases -- a below Guideline sentence, a Guideline sentence, and an above the Guideline sentence supported by judicial fact-finding -- in order to really explain things.

Posted by: Aaron | Jun 4, 2007 7:39:28 PM


Great work from Judge McConnell today

Posted by: | Jun 4, 2007 10:09:34 PM

Wow, I agree.

The commenter above links to Judge McConnell's concurrence in U.S. v. Pruitt (10th Cir. 2007), filed today. It is a very thoughtful discussion of the Rita issue, and of the Guidelines' status, in practice, in the post-Booker decisions of the federal circuit courts of appeals.

Posted by: Mike O'Shea | Jun 4, 2007 11:32:43 PM

One thing that hasn't yet been mentioned (at least, I don't think) is that the Claiborne case also would have given the Supreme Court an opportunity to address the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity. If I remember correctly, this is not an issue in Rita.

Don't know how much this would have been relevant after the recent USSC changes in this area (perhaps that's why no one has mentioned it), but that was one thing that came to mind when I learned that Claiborne was vacated. The crack/powder cocaine disparity is one of the clearest instances where the Guidelines fail to adequately account for a defendant's offense conduct. It would have been interesting to have seen what the Court said about this.

Posted by: Jeff Hurd (law student) | Jun 5, 2007 12:43:57 AM

"I'd appreciate an answer to a question: Why did the Supreme Court order the Court of Appeals' decision to be vacated? Is that an ordinary outcome when a petitioner dies? Should we read anything into the fact that the Court not only dismissed the case but ordered vacation of CoA decision?"

The case that the Claiborne per curiam cites stands for this proposition: "The established practice of the Court in dealing with a civil case from a court in the federal system which has become moot while on its way here or pending our decision on the merits is to reverse or vacate the judgment below and remand with a direction to dismiss."

I would not read anything more into it than that.

Posted by: Booker fan | Jun 5, 2007 1:07:36 PM

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