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January 13, 2009

Two opinions and two wins for criminal defendants from the Supreme Court

Continuing its trend of being the most pro-defendant appellate court in the nation on sentencing issues, the Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning and both involve wins for defendants.  Here are the basic details from Lyle Denniston in this helpful SCOTUSblog post:

The Court has released the opinion in Chambers v. United States (06-11206), on whether a failure to report to prison is the equivalent of escape for purposes of enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  The ruling below, which found for the government, is reversed and remanded.  Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion.  Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Thomas joined. The opinion is available here.

The Court has released the opinion in Jimenez v. Quarterman (07-6984), on whether the reinstatement of an appeal under Texas law restarts the one-year deadline to file a habeas petition under federal law.  The ruling below, which found for the state, is reversed and remanded. Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court. The opinion is available here.

Chambers is, of course, the more important opinion for federal sentencing fans, and I may have some commentary on the Court's recent significant ACCA work in future posts.

January 13, 2009 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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Unfortunately, Chambers does little to shed light on how the ACCA's and 4B1.2's "residual" / "otherwise clause" should be interpreted, other than holding that "walk aways" are not included. Very little new ground is broken, and my quick thought is that the opinion does little to guide lower courts and practitioners in non-walk-away cases.

Part IV of the opinion concludes that the generic conduct involved in a failure to report does not involve the serious potential risk of injury. The Court says that there is not reason to believe that the conduct of failure to report "poses a serious potential risk of physical injury." The Court relies on statistics for walk away escapes that the Sentencing Commission compiled for the purpose of this case. To say the least, that analysis is not going to be easily applied to other prior offenses, unless similar statistics are available.

Concurrence: Judge Alito wrote a concurrence, which Thomas joined. There, the two state that they disagree with Taylor's categorical approach and Begay's holding and that Congress needs to correct it. They also stated: "ACCA's residual clause is nearly impossible to apply consistently."

Given that now at least 3 Justices (Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) have all complained about the difficulty to apply the clause, I think it's even more important to argue that the clause is unconstitutionally vague.

Posted by: DEJ | Jan 13, 2009 4:59:18 PM

i think the reliance on statistics is salutory. in fact, i wish the court had explicitly approved of (instead of just employing) this methodology. would be nice to see the govt produce (and the courts of appeal rely on) some actual evidence re: risk of injury rather than just piling conjectures on conjectures about possible horrific outcomes.

fully agree about the vagueness, though.ee

Posted by: pubdefender | Jan 13, 2009 5:44:03 PM

I truthfully don't see what is vague about it. The goal of a law is not to micromanage every little detail. All I see is three pansy judges whining about having to actually do some work and apply their brains a little. If the only opinion you have as a judge is that its difficult at times to form an opinion, find another line of work. Seriously.

I agree with pubdefender that it was nice to see a case based upon some actual data. Imagine that. It's incredible. Almost unbelievable.

"To say the least, that analysis is not going to be easily applied to other prior offenses"

And why, pray tell, should judging ever be easy?

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 13, 2009 6:07:23 PM

DEJ, does this case resolve that "walkaways," as distinguished from "never showed ups," are not included? I don't think it even resolves that.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 13, 2009 6:19:11 PM

Jimenez unanimously reverses (per Thomas) a single judge order denying a COA. The 5th is bordering on territory usually reserved for the 9th.

Posted by: Jay | Jan 13, 2009 8:13:18 PM

The clause is difficult to apply. Language is important and when there are such differing opinions, logic would demand that one would conclude that the clause is difficult to apply I liked the notion of the rule of lenity.

I guess that the correction that congress would make would, at the very least, require several hundred more words to be interpreted.

Why isn't this depressing to everyone?

Posted by: beth | Jan 13, 2009 9:31:27 PM

DEJ posted that the case holds "walk aways" are not included. I don't see anywhere that the case says that. The case says failure to report or no shows are not included.

Posted by: SDK | Jan 14, 2009 11:23:55 AM

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