Court Wrestles With Vagueness and Retroactivity in Sentencing Context

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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honore%20daumier%20-%20le%20proveYesterday’s oral argument in Beckles v. United States found the justices wrestling with retroactivity and vagueness in the context of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The petitioner, Travis Beckles, questioned the constitutionality of the residual clause of the career-offender provision in Section 4B1.2 of the guidelines after the Supreme Court, in Johnson v. United States, found an identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act to be unconstitutionally vague. Beckles asked the court to rule first on whether a favorable ruling on the constitutional question – on which he and the government agree — would be retroactive on collateral review. Even if the court were to find in favor of Beckles on both counts, he could still lose because of a unique interplay between the career-offender guideline and the guideline commentary, which specifically declared his offense – possession of a sawed-off shotgun – to be a crime of violence.

With her opening question, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg forced Janice Bergmann, representing Beckles, to focus on the third issue in the case: the relationship between the guidelines’ residual clause and the commentary, which specifically listed Beckles’ offense of conviction as a crime of violence. A number of justices took issue with Bergmann’s assertion that the commentary cannot define “shapeless” language, a term taken from Johnson. After all, they noted, the guideline commentary, at least in part, interpreted the residual clause, presumably providing meaning in that manner. They also questioned whether the commission was not in the best position to clarify its own language. Bergmann responded that the guideline language was not the commission’s, but rather was drawn from the ACCA residual clause. Any interpretation and examples offered by the commission, she argued, would therefore be arbitrary.

Justice Samuel Alito was the first to direct the argument to the question of what vagueness would mean in a guideline-free world. Along with Justice Stephen Breyer, Alito reminded Bergmann that pre-guideline sentencing appears substantially more vague and arbitrary than the residual clause, as do many of the current guideline provisions. In response, Bergmann asserted that the guideline residual clause is unique among those provisions because of its identity with the ACCA residual clause, and that it shares the same characteristics embodied in the categorical approach that ultimately caused the court to declare the ACCA provision void for vagueness.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy continued along similar lines by pointing to the decrease in vagueness any guideline, even a vague one, would provide as compared to the previous system of discretionary sentencing. Why, they asked, should greater precision lead to greater vagueness? Read more »

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Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Judges & Judicial Process, Public
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galler_hornsgatan_2012aMy recent article, “Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?,” examines judicial decisions that reflect an increasing dissatisfaction with harsh criminal penalties and severe collateral consequences for nonviolent offenders.  Here is the abstract:

Judicial opposition to disproportionate sentences and the long-term impact of criminal records is growing, at least in the Eastern District of New York. With the proliferation and harshness of collateral consequences and the hurdles in overcoming a criminal record, judges have asked for greater proportionality and improved chances for past offenders to get a fresh start. The combined impact of punitiveness and a criminal record is not only debilitating to the individual but also to their families and communities. A criminal case against a noncitizen who will be subject to deportation and a decade-long ban on reentry and three different requests for expungement will demonstrate how three federal judges struggled with the long-term effects of the current sentencing and collateral consequences regime. These cases exemplify both judicial creativity and judicial impotence, as the courts have to call upon the support of other actors within the executive and legislative branches for change, in these individual cases and systemically.

These judicial critics of the current approach argue within an emerging normative framework that is coming to dominate the societal discourse on punishment. Increasingly some offenders are deemed “worthy” of receiving our assistance in reintegration. They are generally nonviolent first offenders, those with an unblemished record save for the offense of conviction, those who have been gainfully employed or desperately want to work, and those who have cared for their children. They present no danger to the community, and their continued punishment may negatively impact them, their surroundings, and ultimately the country. On the other hand, those labeled violent or sex offenders or terrorists are being considered dangerous, unredeemable, and deserving of the harshness the criminal justice system has brought to bear on them. The specific categorization of offenses, the definitions of terms, and the categorization of offenders remain fluid, contingent, and subject to constant revision. Still, these judicial efforts expand on the incipient efforts at full reintegration of some of those with a criminal record. Whether their challenges will resonate with their colleagues and in other branches of government remains to be seen.

A full copy of the article can be downloaded at the New York University Law Review Online.

Nora Demleitner is the 2016 Boden Visiting Professor at Marquette University Law School.

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Supreme Court to Tackle Constitutionality of Residual Clause in Sentencing Guidelines

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Category: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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hardy_they_shall_show_you_the_sentence_of_judgmentIn 2015, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) as unconstitutionally vague, ruling that the provision did not give ordinary people adequate notice of what conduct was prohibited by the statute. The residual clause had included among the category of “violent felonies” any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Next week, in Beckles v. United States, the court will confront the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines’ version of the residual clause. This is one of two cases this term that address the effect of Johnson on the vagueness doctrine. (The other case, Lynch v. Dimaya, arises in a statutory context.) Two of the nine justices who joined in the six-justice majority opinion in Johnson, including its author – the late Justice Antonin Scalia – will not participate in this case. Because Justice Elena Kagan is recused, a seven-member court will render a decision.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for drafting and amending the sentencing guidelines, removed the guideline residual clause earlier this year and supplanted it in part by commentary, which is also at issue here. It did not, however, make the change retroactive. This case brings the question of retroactivity squarely in front of the court, continuing the interplay between the commission and the court. The ostensible issues of vagueness and retroactivity, however, camouflage a broader question about the meaning and function of advisory guidelines.

Notably, the government has changed its position on both retroactivity and vagueness. Although it supported the defendant’s claims in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit – and those of similarly situated defendants in other circuits – it opposes them now. Adding another dimension to the controversy, the court appointed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” to defend the 11th Circuit’s holding that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the sentencing guidelines. The decision in this case, therefore, will have broad ramifications for vagueness jurisprudence, the meaning of advisory guidelines, and the respective roles of the commission and the court. Read more »

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Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Marquette Law School, President & Executive Branch, Prisoner Rights, Public, Race & Law
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Somewhat lost amidst the wall-to-wall media coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners on August 30. This builds on what has quietly become one of Obama’s most significant end-of-term domestic policy initiatives. He has now commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous ten presidents combined. The August 30 grants, however, had special significance for me and a small group of recent Marquette Law School graduates.

Commutation (that is, a reduction in the severity of a criminal sentence) is a form of executive clemency. The Constitution expressly grants clemency powers, and presidents since George Washington have used these powers in a variety of different ways. In recent decades, though, there has been a certain whiff of disrepute surrounding clemency. Reinforcing the negative perceptions, President Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and President George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby seemed to confirm that clemency was mostly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.

The Obama Administration, however, envisioned a very different way to use clemency.   Read more »

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What the Seventh Circuit Did During Your Summer Vacation

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Category: Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, Seventh Circuit
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seventh-circuit51Part One: Supervised Release

It’s been an eventful summer at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. In addition to deciding high-profile cases involving same-sex marriage and the validity of Wisconsin’s “Act 10” legislation, the Court has issued noteworthy opinions addressing criminal sentencing procedure and the law of evidence.

Seemingly out of the blue, the Court has signaled a new willingness to take a closer look at the imposition of supervised release conditions in federal criminal cases. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and probation officers will all be required to “up their game” in response to this new scrutiny. Read more »

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US Supreme Court Review: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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US Supreme Court OT2013 logo(This is another post in our series, Looking Back at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Term.)

In the first post in this series, I discussed two causation cases in some detail.  In this post, I will more briefly summarize the full set of the Court’s criminal statutory interpretation cases from the past term and then offer a few overarching observations.

Here are the cases (excluding habeas corpus decisions):   Read more »

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US Supreme Court Review: Crime and Causation

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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US Supreme Court logo(This is the first post in our series, Looking Back at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Term. Other posts, when they appear, can be found here.) The Court’s criminal docket this term included two interesting causation cases that came to somewhat different conclusions. The cases were Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, which dealt with criminal responsibility for a drug-related death, and Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, which dealt with restitution for a child pornography victim. In both cases, the Court had to grapple with tensions between traditional, narrow understandings of causal responsibility in the law and a natural human desire to hold bad actors accountable for tragic harms with which they seem to have some connection, even if that connection is a tenuous or uncertain one.

Burrage nicely illustrates the tension.   Read more »

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Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public
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In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at less cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   Read more »

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Supreme Court Reaffirms “Categorical Approach” in Applying Armed Career Criminal Act

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Has Congress ever made the federal courts do more work to little so good effect than it did when it passed the Armed Career Criminal Act in 1984? The ACCA imposes a fifteen-year mandatory minimum on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug crime, which are defined terms in the statute. The basic application problem is that we have fifty different state criminal codes, and state legislatures never saw fit to amend their laws so as to fit their crime definitions to the ACCA terminology. As a result, figuring out which state convictions count as ACCA predicates has consumed — and continutes to consume — an enormous amount of judicial time and effort. A few lines of statutory text have generated a marvelously intricate, uncertain, and ever-changing body of jurisprudence.

The Supreme Court offered its latest foray into the ACCA quagmire yesterday in Descamps v. United States (No. 11-9540). At issue was whether Descamps’s prior burglary conviction in California could be used as a predicate for the fifteen-year ACCA mandatory minimum. The statutory definition of “violent felony” does include “burglary,” but the Court has previously held that not all burglary convictions count; rather, the crime of conviction must have the elements of “generic burglary” — if a state has chosen to define the crime of burglary in an unusually broad manner, then convictions of burlgary in that state may not be treated as burglary convictions for ACCA purposes.

And it turns out that California does have an idiosyncratic burglary definition.  Read more »

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So Long, Harris — Breyer’s on Board

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Yesterday, in a long-anticipated move, the Supreme Court finally overturned its 2002 decision in Harris v. United States. The new decision in Alleyne v. United States extended jury-trial rights to mandatory minimum sentences. Justice Breyer’s “flip” from his position in Harris made the difference.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), the Court held that a defendant has a right to a jury trial regarding the facts that may increase the maximum sentence to which he is exposed. Breyer dissented in Apprendi and has steadfastly maintained ever since that Apprendi was wrongly decided.

Two years later, in Harris, the Court decided not to extend Apprendi to the facts that raise a defendant’s minimum sentence. Breyer was part of the 5-4 majority in Harris, but stated in a concurring opinion that he could see no reason to distinguish increasing the maximum from increasing the minimum. Thus, Breyer’s vote in Harris was simply another vote against Apprendi. This immediately raised the expectation that some day, when Breyer was ready to give up the fight against Apprendi, he would be willing to overturn Harris.

Some day has come.  Read more »

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SCOTUS: Guidelines Amendments Trigger Ex Post Facto Protections

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So just how advisory are the “advisory” federal sentencing guidelines? That was the central question in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier today in Peugh v. United States, which held that guidelines amendments resulting in harsher recommended sentences are limited by the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution.

The Court converted the federal sentencing guidelines from mandatory to advisory in 2005, but left unanswered many important questions about what exactly it means for the guidelines to be “advisory.” Several of these questions were answered in a trilogy of 2007 decisions, which effectively established a new and unique sentencing system for the federal courts. Although sentencing judges are not required to follow the guidelines, the Supreme Court did put a thumb on the scales in favor of guidelines sentences. Dissenting justices objected that this kinda-sorta advisory system violated the Sixth Amendment, but to no avail.

The new system also raised Ex Post Facto Clause issues, which divided the lower courts. Peugh nicely illustrates the problem.  Read more »

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New Essays on Restitution and Sentencing Commissions

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Legal Scholarship, Public
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I have two new essays on SSRN assessing the history and future prospects of restitution and sentencing commissions, respectively. These essays will be published later this year in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

The restitution essay covers such topics as Randy Barnett’s proposal that restitution be used in lieu of imprisonment as our basic form of criminal punishment, debates regarding which types of victims should be able to recover for which types of injuries, and the question of whether victims seeking restitution should be given a right to legal representation.

The sentencing commissions essay focuses particularly on the Minnesota and federal sentencing commissions. In considering these case studies, as well as the experience with sentencing commissions in a few other states, my primary theme is the relationship between sentencing commissions and legislatures. (As I point out in the essay, although sentencing commissions are predominantly legislative creations, commissions have often struggled to maintain their relevance in the face of ongoing legislative policymaking in the sentencing area, which frequently takes the form of harsh statutory responses to the “crime du jour.”) A secondary theme is the relationship between commissions and judges—another relationship that has sometimes proven quite challenging for the commissions to manage effectively.

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