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February 26, 2020

SCOTUS unanimously clarifies (in narrow way) that no special words are needed to preserve substantive reasonableness review

In this post when cert was granted in Holguin-Hernandez last June, I rejoiced because it has been nearly a decade since SCOTUS has said anything significant about reasonableness review.  But, recognizing that the case concerned only an appellate procedural issue, I was prepared for the ultimate ruling to be a narrow one.  And this morning in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States, No. 18–7739 (S. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (available here), the Justices through a unanimous opinion said about as little as possible while ruling for the defendant.  Here are some key excerpts from Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court, with my favorite and least favorite passages bolded (and lots of cites removed):

Congress has instructed sentencing courts to impose sentences that are “‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with’” (among other things) certain basic objectives, including the need for “just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.” Dean v. United States, 581 U.S. ___, ___ (2017)... If the trial court follows proper procedures and gives adequate consideration to these and the other listed factors, then the question for an appellate court is simply, as here, whether the trial court’s chosen sentence was “reasonable” or whether the judge instead “abused his discretion in determining that the §3553(a) factors supported” the sentence imposed....

Judges, having in mind their “overarching duty” under §3553(a), would ordinarily understand that a defendant [advocating for a shorter sentence] was making the argument (to put it in statutory terms) that the shorter sentence would be “‘sufficient’” and a longer sentence “‘greater than necessary’” to achieve the purposes of sentencing. Nothing more is needed to preserve the claim that a longer sentence is unreasonable.

We do not agree with the Court of Appeals’ suggestion that defendants are required to refer to the “reasonableness” of a sentence to preserve such claims for appeal.  The rulemakers, in promulgating Rule 51, intended to dispense with the need for formal “exceptions” to a trial court’s rulings....  The question is simply whether the claimed error was “brought to the court’s attention.” Rule 52(b).  Here, it was.

The Court of Appeals properly noted that, to win on appeal, a defendant making such a claim must show that the trial court’s decision was not “reasonable.” Gall, 552 U.S., at 56.  But that fact is not relevant to the issue here.  Our decisions make plain that reasonableness is the label we have given to “the familiar abuse-of-discretion standard” that “applies to appellate review” of the trial court’s sentencing decision. Id., at 46 (emphasis added); ... The substantive standard that Congress has prescribed for trial courts is the “parsimony principle” enshrined in §3553(a).  Dean, 581 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 4).  A defendant who, by advocating for a particular sentence, communicates to the trial judge his view that a longer sentence is “greater than necessary” has thereby informed the court of the legal error at issue in an appellate challenge to the substantive reasonableness of the sentence.  He need not also refer to the standard of review.

The Government and amicus raise other issues.  They ask us to decide what is sufficient to preserve a claim that a trial court used improper procedures in arriving at its chosen sentence.  And they ask us to decide when a party has properly preserved the right to make particular arguments supporting its claim that a sentence is unreasonably long.  We shall not consider these matters, however, for the Court of Appeals has not considered them.  We hold only that the defendant here properly preserved the claim that his 12-month sentence was unreasonably long by advocating for a shorter sentence and thereby arguing, in effect, that this shorter sentence would have proved “sufficient,” while a sentence of 12 months or longer would be “greater than necessary” to “comply with” the statutory purposes of punishment. 18 U.S.C. §3553(a).

I am pleased to see that this decision clarifies, yet again, that district judges under Booker are duty-bound to impose sentences that are "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with" statutory requirements.  A full 15 years after Booker, more than a few courts still talk about their obligation to impose a "reasonable" sentence even though this is an appellate standard of review.  Kudos to SCOTUS for stressing in this case that "the substantive standard that Congress has prescribed for trial courts is the 'parsimony principle' enshrined in §3553(a)."

But I am displeased to see that this decision refuses to address any other reasonableness review issues.  I respect the Court's decision to be circumspect in a case only raising a small issue, but there are thousands of sentence appeals each year that could benefit from additional clarity about how reasonableness review should proceed and how various issues are properly (or improperly) preserved.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, Justice Alito (joined by Justice Gorsuch), feels compelled to write a short concurring opinion in order "to emphasize what we are not deciding."  His opinion asserts that "the plain-error rule serves many interests" and he suggests that there are many ways even after Holguin-Hernandez to apply this limited review standard to various sentencing claims on appeal.

February 26, 2020 at 03:44 PM | Permalink

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