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October 23, 2018

Terrific discussions of guideline commentary and agency issues in the Sixth Circuit (while a defendant loses appeal again)

Yesterday a Sixth Circuit panel handed down an interesting and intricate opinion in US v. Havis, No. 17-5772 (6th Cir. Oct. 22, 2018) (available here), that likely will be of even greater interest to administrative law gurus than to sentencing fans.  The start of the opinion for the court authored by Judge Thapar frames and sets up what follows:

What we do is sometimes less important than how we do it.  The United States Sentencing Commission has the power to promulgate the Sentencing Guidelines.  But Congress has limited how it may exercise that power.  Those limits are important — not only because Congress thinks so, but because they define the Commission’s identity in our constitutional structure.

Jeffery Havis claims that the Commission has disregarded those limits.  And he may have a point.  But a prior published decision of our court requires that we reject this part of his argument.  Following that precedent and finding Havis’s other arguments unavailing, we affirm his sentence

For the defendant, what follows must be especially discouraging: he loses the appeal 2-1 ,and the two votes against him seem to agree that his arguments are compelling but foreclosed by circuit precedent that can only be reviewed via an en banc proceeding. For administrative law gurus, there are many pages with thoughtful judges debating the pros and cons of whether Auer deference presents constitutional problems in this context. As a sentencing fan, I found this passage from Judge Thapar (among many others in all the opinions) notable:

[I]n criminal cases, ambiguity typically favors the defendant.  If there is reasonable doubt, no conviction. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). And if a statute is ambiguous, courts construe the statute in the criminal defendant’s favor.  E.g., United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507, 514 (2008) (describing the “venerable” rule of lenity).  But not here. Auer would mean that rather than benefiting from any ambiguity in the Guidelines, Havis would face the possibility of more time in prison than he otherwise would.  So in this context, Auer not only threatens the separation of powers but also endangers fundamental legal precepts as well.  See Carter v. Welles-Bowen Realty, Inc., 736 F.3d 722, 732–33 (6th Cir. 2013) (Sutton, J., concurring) (highlighting problems with requiring the rule of lenity to bow to Auer deference); see also Perez v. United States, 885 F.3d 984, 990–91 (6th Cir. 2018) (suggesting that the rule of lenity might apply in considering sentencing enhancements under the Armed Career Criminal Act).

For both sentencing and administrative law fans, Havis is a must read.

October 23, 2018 at 12:16 PM | Permalink

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