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June 26, 2015

SCOTUS finds, per Justice Scalia, that ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague

In a very important Fifth Amendment criminal procedure ruling, though one certain to be overlooked because of an even more important Fourteenth Amendment ruling issued right before it, the Supreme Court this morning in Johnson v. United States, 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  Justice Scalia wrote the main opinion for the Court (which carried five other Justices, including the Chief), and here is a key paragraph from the begining of the opinion's legal analysis:

We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause [of ACCA] both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges. Increasing a defendant’s sentence under the clause denies due process of law.

I will need some time to review and reflect to figure out how big a ruling Johnson may prove to be. But the basic reality that the defendant prevailed here on the broadest constitutional ground (and especially the fact that only Justice Alito was prepared to rule for the federal government on appeal) further proves a point I have been making since Blakely was handed down over a decade ago: The modern US Supreme Court is, at least on sentencing issues, the most pro-defendant appellate court in the nation.

That all said, and of particular significance for ACCA sentences that are built on convictions that do not depend on interpretations of the residual clause, the Court's opinion in Johnson ends with this critical and clear discussion of the limits of the holding:

We hold that imposing an increased sentence under theresidual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process. Our contraryholdings in James and Sykes are overruled. Today’s decision does not call into question application of the Act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the Act’s definition of a violent felony.

June 26, 2015 at 10:29 AM | Permalink


8-1 in judgment (Alito dissents), 6 for Scalia's opinion (joined by Roberts and the liberals) that the entire clause is unconstitutionally vague.

Big ruling.

Posted by: John Thacker | Jun 26, 2015 10:31:05 AM

"most pro-defendant appellate court"

So not a single state is more pro-defendant on these issues? Or, are we talking reach?

Posted by: Joe | Jun 26, 2015 10:42:16 AM

I would love to hear about a state Supreme Court being so pro-defendant on federal constitutional sentencing issues (especially outside the context of the death penalty), but I cannot readily think of one. Notably, SCOTUS in Apprendi in 2000 reversed an opinion by a New Jersey Supreme Court thought to be pretty liberal, and Blakely reversed an opinion by a Washington Supreme Court throught to be pretty liberal. And via its progeny SCOTUS has been the one more likely to extend these opinions than lower courts. Similarly, I do not think any state courts were significantly moved by Eighth Amendment claims against LWOP for kids until the Justices got this going in Graham and Miller.

I would love to hear from you or others about state courts that can give Justices Scalia + Kennedy et al. a run of this title, but for now I think my (extreme?) claim about modern SCOTUS being very pro-defendant on sentencing issues is pretty solid.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 26, 2015 10:53:49 AM

I have little knowledge of state supreme courts so welcome other comments.

It is my general assumption that the Supreme Court rarely acts totally revolutionary on criminal justice decisions. Take Apprendi. I don't know, which is why I'm asking -- did NO state court at that time follow that rule? The rule to me at least seems logical. Hard to believe not a single state followed it. If so, okay.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 26, 2015 11:04:39 AM

Presumably, this decision will have retroactive effect to men already serving sentences in Federal prisons, after having been sentenced under the residual clause of the ACCA. All Supreme Court decisions that interpret the meaning of a criminal statute declare what that statute has meant since the day it was enacted. In this case, the statute is UnConstitutionally vague, and must have been from the beginning. I wonder how many men will get to file new Motions for habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S. Code section 2255.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 26, 2015 11:24:31 AM

Would that last commenter happen to be the Jim Gormley referenced in this article? http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/19/disbarred-lawyers-face-career-personal-hurdles/4651761/

Posted by: J.D. | Jul 2, 2015 11:42:43 AM

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