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March 31, 2010

"Supreme Court justices have a good time debating 'good time'"

The title of this post is the headline of this CCN report on yesterday's Supreme Court argument in Barber v. Thomas (09-5201).  Here's more:

Sometimes the most complicated of cases at the Supreme Court brings out the best arguments.  It certainly brought out the giggles in a little-watched appeal Tuesday over federal prison terms.

The justices managed to crack themselves up -- along with the public audience -- at least a dozen times in the hourlong oral debate.  Justice Clarence Thomas rarely speaks at the high court's normally sober sessions, but he especially enjoyed the gentle insults and self-deprecating jibes his colleagues showered on each other. His booming laugh could be clearly heard at times.

At issue was how the federal Bureau of Prisons should calculate "good-time credit" -- reduced sentences for inmates staying out of trouble in custody.  Prisoners can earn up to 54 days of credit for each year of the sentence....

Despite the fun, the question is a serious one for the nearly 197,000 federal prisoners and their families, according to the most recent weekly population report issued by the Justice Department. Ninety-five percent of the inmates are affected by the good-time provision. Lawyers for the inmates say the savings to taxpayers under their reading of the law would amount to $953 million a year now being spent to incarcerate current prisoners.

The case is Barber v. Thomas (09-5201).  A written ruling -- minus any jokes -- is expected by June.

Comically, I have been so busy the last few days, I have not yet even had a chance to read the Barber transcript yet (which is available here).  For reasons hinted in this article, however, this case could prove to be the sleeper sentencing case of the Term.

March 31, 2010 at 05:27 PM | Permalink


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I was out there for the Dillon argument, and hung around for Barber. It was pretty light-hearted! The biggest laugh came when the Assistant SG noted to Justice Scalia something to the effect of "Even Justice Breyer understands this..." as a way of making the math behind the argument seem understandable.

Posted by: Mark Osler | Mar 31, 2010 5:52:25 PM

From the transcript:

"JUSTICE STEVENS: Probably they didn't understand it because it's an awfully hard statute to understand.

MR. WALL: Justice Stevens, with all respect, Justice Breyer got it in the first 5 minutes. So I think the -


JUSTICE STEVENS: Well, he's a lot smarter than I am.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Even Justice Breyer has got it! Whoa!

Posted by: MJG | Mar 31, 2010 5:54:41 PM

Lawyer language is lawyer stealing, by requiring the hiring of one to translate. Worse than theft, it is French. The French taught this scam to the British lawyer in the 13th Century.

An Amendment should be enacted that any legal utterance rating above the sixth grade is void, not voidable. The Constitution is rated at the 12th grade. No lawyer utterance should be allowed to be more high fallutin' than the Constitution.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 2, 2010 2:14:50 AM

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