« Any speculations on criminal justice echoes from SCOTUS rejection of violent video game regulation? | Main | "Jury Convicts Blagojevich" »

June 27, 2011

Justice Scalia's amusing assault on ACCA jurisprudence in dissent from denials of cert

As mentioned briefly in this prior post, Justice Scalia got in another complaint about the vagueness of the Armed Career Criminal Act as he dissented from a denial of cert in a set of ACCA cases.  Here is the heart of his complain from this entertaining little opinion in Derby v. US:

Before us are petitions for certiorari by criminal defendants asking us to decide whether four more of the “vast variety of . . . criminal offenses” that we have not yet addressed, see Sykes v. United States, ante, at 2–4, 7 (SCALIA, J., dissenting), are crimes of violence under the residual provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  See 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii)....

How we would resolve these cases if we granted certiorari would be a fine subject for a law-office betting pool.  No one knows for sure.  Certainly our most recent decision interpreting ACCA’s residual clause, Sykes v. United States, ante, p. 1, would be of no help.  The “rule” we announced there, as far as I can tell, is as follows: A court must compare the degree of risk of the crime in question with the degree of risk of ACCA’s enumerated offenses (burglary, extortion, arson, and crimes involving the use of explosives) as a “beginning point,” ante, at 6–7; look at the statistical record, which is not “dispositive” but sometimes confirms “commonsense conclusion[s],” ante, at 8; and check whether the crime is “purposeful, violent, and aggressive,” unless of course the crime is among the unspecified “many cases” in which that test is “redundant with the inquiry into risk,” ante, at 11.  And of course given our track record of adding a new animal to our bestiary of ACCA residual-clause standards in each of the four successive cases we have thus far decided, see ante, at 2–4 (SCALIA, J., dissenting), who knows what new beasties our fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth tries would produce?  Surely a perfectly fair wager.

If it is uncertain how this Court will apply Sykes and the rest of our ACCA cases going forward, it is even more uncertain how our lower-court colleagues will deal with them. Conceivably, they will simply throw the opinions into the air in frustration, and give free rein to their own feelings as to what offenses should be considered crimes of violence —which, to tell the truth, seems to be what we have done.  (Before throwing the opinions into the air, however, they should check whether littering — or littering in a purposeful, violent, and aggressive fashion — is a felony in their jurisdiction.  If so, it may be a violent felony under ACCA; or perhaps not.)

Since our ACCA cases are incomprehensible to judges, the statute obviously does not give “person[s] of ordinary intelligence fair notice” of its reach.  United States v. Batchelder, 442 U. S. 114, 123 (1979) (internal quotation marks omitted).  I would grant certiorari, declare ACCA’s residual provision to be unconstitutionally vague, and ring down the curtain on the ACCA farce playing in federal courts throughout the Nation.

In addition to be joyfully amusing, I think there are some very interesting and important jurisprudential ideas lurking in this opinion for lower courts.  I will expand on this thought in some future posts.

June 27, 2011 at 02:07 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Justice Scalia's amusing assault on ACCA jurisprudence in dissent from denials of cert:


Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB