Federalism and Criminal Law

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Federalism, U.S. Supreme Court
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mapThis is the fourth in a series of posts reviewing last term’s criminal cases in the United States Supreme Court and previewing the new term.

Habeas corpus presents the classic federalism problem in criminal law: how can federal courts overturn flawed state-court judgments while maintaining due respect for state sovereignty and the autonomy of state criminal-justice systems?  But federalism issues can also appear in criminal cases that originate in federal court.  In its new term, the Supreme Court has at least two such cases.

First, in United States v. Johnson, the Court will consider whether a battery conviction in Florida state court counts as a violent crime for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act, a federal sentencing statute.   (I have posted several times about ACCA in the past year, most recently here.)  Although “battery” normally evokes images of serious violent crime, Florida law defines battery so that it includes any nonconsensual touching, regardless of risk of injury.  For that reason, the Florida Supreme Court has already ruled that battery is not a violent crime for state-law purposes.  Thus, in Johnson, the United States Supreme Court is confronted with a question of whether it should defer to state-court characterizations of state crimes for purposes of implementing a federal statute.

Second, in United States v. Weyrauch, the Court must decide whether a state official can be convicted of honest-services fraud based on a conflict of interest that did not violate state law.  (This is one of three new cases in which the Court will consider various dimensions of the federal crime of honest-services fraud.) 

Normally, we expect each state to define the ethical duties of its own public officials.  This seems a basic attribute of sovereignty.  Thus, the theory of prosecution in Weyrauch — that the defendant violated a uniform federal ethical standard for state officials — strikes me as a rather extraordinary (and, I daresay, unfortunate) federal intrusion into the administration of state government.

Both Johnson and Weyrauch ask the Court to choose between what I have termed elsewhere “national uniformity” (uniform treatment of criminal defendants across the entire federal system) and “local uniformity” (uniform treatment of criminal defendants in state and federal courts within the same state).  Should the Court seek to ensure, as far as possible, that battery convictions are treated the same for ACCA purposes regardless of the state from which they derive?  Or should the Court be more concerned that a Florida battery conviction is treated the same regardless of whether a Florida recidivist is being sentenced in state or federal court?  Should the Court seek to establish uniform national ethical standards for state officials, or should the Court defer to each state’s resolution of the underlying policy questions?

Earlier posts in this series:

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One Response to “Federalism and Criminal Law”

  1. What impact does federalism have on the criminal justice system?

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