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September 17, 2020

Finding a silver lining in new report on Prez Trump's disappointing nominees to US Sentencing Commission

The Marshall Project has this new mostly depressing article about the troubling slate of US Sentencing Commission nominees announced by Prez Trump last month (basics here).  Even the headline of the piece, "Before Election, Trump Tries To Stack Prison-Sentencing Agency With Right Wing Allies," is telling and depressing since the US Sentencing Commission should be a whole lot more than a "Prison-Sentencing Agency" even though this is a disconcertingly fitting descriptor. 

In any event, ever eager to find a silver lining, I found a few passages in the article somewhat indirectly encouraging.  I have bolded below what seems "not so bad" amdist an otherwise disconcerting piece: 

The commission is required by law to be bipartisan and to represent a diversity of backgrounds.  But Trump has broken from that precedent by proposing to fill the agency’s five empty seats with appointees who are nearly all white male former law enforcement officials.  And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may, in the final months before the end of the president’s term, try to confirm these nominees, according to five Senate Judiciary Committee staffers as well as several advocacy groups.

“We’re worried they’re trying to cram these appointments through in case Trump loses,” said Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums....  The president’s nominees include Judge Henry E. Hudson, a federal judge in Virginia known as “Hang ‘Em High Henry,” who once said, “I live to put people in jail.”  Hudson, a former prosecutor and former director of the U.S. Marshals Service, led a Reagan administration anti-pornography commission that claimed that viewing sexual images causes sex crimes....

Also among the president’s picks for the commission is Judge K. Michael Moore of Florida, another former prosecutor and another former director of the U.S. Marshals.  In 2015, Moore sent a nonviolent first-time drug offender to prison for 20 years, a sentence so extreme that Trump commuted it four years later.

Other nominees include Judge Claria Horn Boom of Kentucky, a former prosecutor championed by McConnell, and John G. Malcolm, a former prosecutor who is now the director of a judicial studies program at the conservative Heritage Foundation.  The lone non-prosecutor in the group is Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania, a former public defender nominated to the federal bench by former President Obama....

Trump has said little publicly about his nominees, perhaps to avoid drawing media attention that could complicate their confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, is a member of that committee, as are some Republicans — including Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah — who have supported some efforts to moderate harsh sentencing.

Judiciary Committee staffers said that one or two of Trump’s picks may get confirmed, but probably not all.  Reform advocates say there is not enough time to properly evaluate the candidates, and that any vote on them should wait until next year.  “During normal times, the wonkiness of nominees to the Sentencing Commission might have allowed the package to move forward,” said David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union and an advocate of sentencing reform.  “But it’s too easy for Democrats to demagogue Henry Hudson.” 

Spokespeople for McConnell and for Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, did not respond to requests for comment as to whether there will be a confirmation hearing in the coming months....

Legal experts see William Barr’s hand in this slate of nominees consisting of nearly all former Justice Department prosecutors. “Prosecutors always say, ‘We don’t make the law, we just enforce it,’” said Safavian of the American Conservative Union.  But choosing this group of appointees to set federal sentencing rules, he said, “is one of many examples of how that is not at all true.”

The fact that this piece indirectly quotes Senate staffers indicating that "one or two of Trump’s picks may get confirmed, but probably not all" seems to me a sign that this slate of nominees in this form is very unlikely to be "rubber stamped" by the current GOP-led Senate anytime soon.  In addition, the fact Prez Trump and Senators Graham and McConnell do not seem to be at all eager to talk up these nominees is another reason to think they are unlikely to sail through the confirmation process.  And if ultimately just a couple of nominees, especially John Malcolm and Judge Restrepo, were to get through the process, we might even hope to see this dormant judicial agency moving in the right direction sooner rather than later.

But this optimistic tea-leaf reading from someone way outside the Beltway may be just a kind of naive wishful thinking about what is really afoot with USSC nominations inside the Beltway.  Regardless of the election results, I could still imagine a world in which the current GOP-led Senate uses the lame duck months to confirm many if not all of this Trumpian slate.  And I presume if Trump is reelected and the Senate remains in GOP control, this folks in this slate of nominees are functional front-runners for the USSC's open slots even if those slots do not get filled into 2021 or beyond.

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September 17, 2020 at 01:13 PM | Permalink


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