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March 22, 2021

Notable SCOTUS partners urging (unavailable) USSC to clarify a guideline point

As noted before, the big SCOTUS news today for sentencing fans was the Justices' decision to grant cert to reconsider the reversal of the federal death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  (How Appealing collects some of the major media coverage here).  But for federal guideline gurus, the SCOTUS order list also included a fascinating little statement by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Gorsuch, respecting the denial of certiorari in Longoria v. United States, No. 20–5715. 

For starters, though seeing Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch together might surprise some, folks who follow non-capital sentencing jurisprudence likely know that these two often speak in harmony on these kinds of issues.  More notable is what these Justices had to say within a three-paragraph statement focused on the application of one of the few downward adjustments in the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Here are highlights:

This petition implicates an important and longstanding split among the Courts of Appeals over the proper interpretation of § 3E1.1(b).  Most Circuits have determined that a suppression hearing is not a valid basis for denying the [extra one-point acceptance of responsibility] reduction....  A minority of Circuits have concluded otherwise.  In this case, for example, the Fifth Circuit accepted the Government’s refusal to move for a reduction after it had to prepare for a 1-day suppression hearing....

The Sentencing Commission should have the opportunity to address this issue in the first instance, once it regains a quorum of voting members. [FN*]  Cf. Braxton v. United States, 500 U.S. 344, 348 (1991).  I write separately to emphasize the need for clarification from the Commission.  The effect of a one-level reduction can be substantial.  For the most serious offenses, the reduction can shift the Guidelines range by years, and even make the difference between a fixed-term and a life sentence.  The present disagreement among the Courts of Appeals means that similarly situated defendants may receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced. When the Commission is able, it should take steps to ensure that § 3E1.1(b) is applied fairly and uniformly.

[FN*] Currently, six of the seven voting members’ seats are vacant.  The votes of at least four members are required for the Commission to promulgate amendments to the Guidelines.  See U.S. Sentencing Commission, Organization (Mar. 18, 2021), https://www.ussc.gov/about/who-weare/organization.

I am very pleased to see a couple Justices flag this issue, and I especially like the emphasis that the "effect of a one-level reduction can be substantial."  In other words, kudos to these Justices for making the point that even a single guideline point can be a big deal. (And I suspect that this sentence alone may end up in a lot of future briefs.)  I also like a high-profile shout out to a (non-functional) Sentencing Commission to take up this matter. 

But the split noted here has been kicking around for decades, meaning that the Commission has already long been able to, and long failed to, address this issue.  Moreover, because the Sentencing Commission currently lacks a quorum, practically speaking, it will not be able to address this issue until at least 2022 even if future members are eager to do so.

For the entire history of the federal sentencing guidelines, and as explained in the 1991 SCOTUS Braxton ruling, the Supreme Court has generally left it to the Commission to resolve conflicts over guideline interpretation.  I understand the thinking behind this kind of deflection (although I flagged some concerns in a long-ago article, The Sentencing Commission as Guidelines Supreme Court: Responding to Circuit Conflicts, 7 Fed. Sent. Rep. 142 (1994)).  Now that the guidelines are "effectively advisory," there is arguably even stronger reasons for SCOTUS not to spend its limited time on the resolution of circuit conflicts over guideline interpretation.

Still, this kind of case leaves me wondering if, at some point, the Justices can and should be prepared to actually adjudicate guideline matters that have long festered and allows "similarly situated defendants [to possibly] receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced."  Moreover, here we have a guideline provision being applied to functionally punish defendants seeking to vindicate constitutional rights through a court motion, a type of guideline issue which might be especially appropriate for the Supreme Court's intervention.

March 22, 2021 at 11:42 PM | Permalink


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