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November 16, 2010

Does Abbott provide new and added support for applying the FSA to pending cases?

The Supreme Court's unanimous (and unsurprising) opinion in Abbott v. US (available here; discussed here), which adopted the government's approach to the application of the special firearm sentencing provisions set forth in 924(c), may seem of little relevance to anyone but defendants who face multiple sentences for multiple offenses that carry multiple mandatory minimum sentence provisions.  But, for anyone currently litigating another (now hot) statutory sentencing issue, Abbottis still worth a close read.  Specifically, I think defendants and attorneys arguing that the new Fair Sentencing Act's provisions concerning crack sentencing should apply to pending cases can draw some new and added support from the Justices' work in Abbott.  Let me explain my thinking.

First, at slip op. 10 of the Abbott opinion, the Supreme Court stresses the "primary objective" of the statutory amendment at issue in that case.   The Abbottcourt reasons that because Congress meant to broaden the reach of the gun sentences set out in 924(c), the defendant's arguments to limit the reach of that statute were not compelling.  I think the inverse argument could be made concerning the "primary objective" of the new FSA amendments to crack sentencing provisions: because Congress clearly meant to reduce the scope and impact of the disparity between crack and powder offenses, the government's arguments to limit the applicability of the new statute seem to me to be less than compelling.

Second, at slip op. 11 of the Abbottopinion, the Supreme Court stresses the defendants' suggested statutory reading "would result in sentencing anomalies Congress surely did not intend" because, under that reading, "the worst offenders would often secure the shortest sentences."  A similar argument can be made concerning the government's suggested approach to the FSA: because the US Sentencing Commission has amended and made applicable new crack guidelines that plainly apply to pending case involving large quantities of crack, the failure to give the new FSA statutory provision in yet-to-be-sentenced cases means that only "the worst offenders would often secure the shortest sentences" as a result of the FSA's changes while cases are still in the pipeline.

Third, at slip op. 14 of the Abbottopinion, the Supreme Court rejects the defendants' suggestion that Congress expected the federal sentencing guideline to serve as a gap-filler because there is not any indication that "Congress was contemplating the Guidelines' relationship" to mandatory minimum sentencing when it amended 924(c).  But, in sharp contrast, Congress in the FSA plainly and expressly did contemplate the Guidelines' relationship to crack sentencing statutes when it enacted the fair Sentencing Act.  Thus, the kind of Guideline-centric statutory construction claim rejected in Abbottshould have far more force in the FSA setting.

Fourth, at slip op. 16 of the Abbott opinion, the Supreme Court asserts there is "strong contextual support" for government's statutory interpretation in that case.  In contrast,  as I suggested in this amicus letter submitted in a pending case in the Southern District of New York, I see "strong contextual support" for defendants' proposed application of the FSA to all pending not-yet-sentenced cases.

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November 16, 2010 at 05:15 PM | Permalink


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So much for textualism!

Posted by: dm | Nov 16, 2010 8:29:04 PM

Prof. Berman,

Your points are well taken but do they apply even though Abbott and Gould were not dealing with a 924(c)'s retroactivity??

I hope my question is clear.

Thank you.


Posted by: Claudia G. | Nov 17, 2010 4:03:01 AM

Your write-up makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the information. You explained it really well.

Posted by: karen | Feb 8, 2014 8:04:02 AM

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