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September 28, 2023

Reviewing the big little and/or case, Pulsifer v. US, that will kick off the new Supreme Court Term

I am excited that the US Supreme Court starts hearing cases this coming Monday to kick off October Term 2023, and I am especially excited that its first case for argument is Pulsifer v. United States.  Stated in a pithy way, the issue in Pulsifer is whether the word "and" as used in the FIRST STEP Act's expansion of the mandatory minimum statutory safety valve actually means "and" or might instead mean "or."   I have seen only a couple press previews of the case so far:

From the AP, "The Supreme Court will hear a case with a lot of ‘buts’ & ‘ifs’ over the meaning of ‘and’"

From Forbes, "Why Thousands Of Prisoners Could Be Spared Because Of A Supreme Court Case Over The Word ‘And’"

In addition, Balls and Strikes has published a commentary about the case with a eye-catching headline: "How the Supreme Court Could Undercut the Future of Criminal Justice Reform."

Though I do not see the fate and future of criminal justice reform as fully at issue in Pulsifer, the US Sentencing Commission set forth data earlier this year which suggests that the fate and future of thousands of federal drug defendants will be impacted by Pulsifer.  Specifically, on page 11 of this February 2023 document discussing possible guideline amendments, the USSC set forth this analysis:

Using fiscal year 2021 data, Commission analysis estimated that of 17,520 drug trafficking offenders, 11,866 offenders meet the non-criminal history requirements of the safety valve (18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(2)–(5)).  Of those 11,866 offenders, 5,768 offenders have no more than one criminal history point and would be eligible under the unamended pre-First Step Act criminal history requirement.  Under a disjunctive interpretation of the expanded criminal history provision, 1,987 offenders would become eligible.  The remaining 4,111 offenders would be ineligible.  In comparison, under the Ninth Circuit’s conjunctive interpretation of the expanded criminal history provision, 5,778 offenders would become eligible.  The remaining 320 offenders would be ineligible.

I read this data analysis to mean that in a typical year, nearly 4000 additional federal drug defendants could benefit from the more defendant-friendly interpretation FIRST STEP Act's expansion of the mandatory minimum statutory safety valve (in other words, if "and" means "and" and not "or").  Of course, not all defendants are subject to a significant statutory mandatory minimum term (and some avoid such a term by providing substantial assistance), but the Commission's proposed guideline amendment creates a guideline reduction that makes the safety value functionally significant to every drug defendant.

In addition to helping thousands of federal drug defendants in future cases, a pro-defendant ruling by the Supreme Court could potentially help thousands of federal drug defendants currently in prison.  Given that the FIRST STEP Act reforms have been applicable since Dec 2018, and that a number of circuits rejected the more defendant-friendly interpretation (finding that "and" really means "or" here), I have speculated that perhaps as many as 10,000 or more persons now serving time in federal prison for drug offenses might have a claim that they would have benefitted, and now should benefit, from the defendant-friendly interpretation (though there may be, of course, procedural barriers for any prisoners seeking to secure relief from a positive Pulsifer SCOTUS ruling).

I suspect we will get a sense of the Justices' thinking about this and/or statutory interpretation issue during oral argument on Monday, and I am already excited to have a SCOTUS sentencing oral argument to listen to next week.

September 28, 2023 at 05:56 PM | Permalink


Doug: You are a man of simple needs. You just need a SCOTUS oral argument about a sentencing issue to listen to. Do you sip a scotch or drink a glass of wine while listening to those SCOTUS arguments?

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Sep 28, 2023 8:06:43 PM

I have a ringside seat in the courtroom for this one.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 30, 2023 10:19:28 AM

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