Marquette Law Review Article Sparks Debate on Use of Dictionaries to Decide Legal Cases

A recent article in the Marquette Law Review was featured in Adam Liptak's "Sidebar" column for the New York Times earlier this week.  Liptak wrote about the increasingly common citation of dictionaries in Supreme Court opinions: A new study in The Marquette Law Review found that the justices had used dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions in the 10 years starting in October 2000. That is roughly in line with the previous decade but an explosion by…

Continue ReadingMarquette Law Review Article Sparks Debate on Use of Dictionaries to Decide Legal Cases

Seventh Circuit Says Begay and Chambers Must Be Applied Retroactively

Retroactivity has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s ongoing consideration of whether to give already-sentenced defendants the benefit of more favorable crack guidelines. But crack defendants are not the only inmates serving extraordinarily long terms based on recently discarded aspects of federal sentencing law.  Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit approved retroactivity for another category of such inmates in Narvaez v. United States (No. 09-2919).

The Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Begay and Chambers substantially narrowed the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s fifteen-year mandatory minimum.  (For background, see this post.  Ironically, shortly after Narvaez was decided, the Court issued its opinion in Sykes v. United States, which seemed to back away from Begay.)  Five years before Begay, Luis Narvaez pled guilty to bank robbery and was sentenced as a career offender under the sentencing guidelines based on his prior convictions for “violent felonies,” including two convictions for failure to return to confinement in violation of Wis. Stat. § 946.42 (3)(a).  Later, in Chambers, the Supreme Court ruled that the Illinois crime of failing to report for confinement did not count as a “violent felony.”  Narvaez then filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence in light of Chambers.  The district judge held that Chambers did not apply retroactively, but granted Narvaez a certificate of appealability.

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Court Backs Away From Begay

Is the Begay revolution over?  In its 2008 decision in Begay v. United States, the Supreme Court adopted a narrow construction of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s “residual clause,” limiting the ACCA’s reach to convictions for “purposeful, violent, and aggressive” crimes.  (For background, see this post.)  The following year, in Chambers v. United States, the Court again pared back the residual clause, emphasizing the need to demonstrate the objective dangerousness of an offense for it to count as a trigger for the ACCA’s fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence.

What many observers took from Begay and Chambers is that a prior conviction does not count under the ACCA unless it satisfies both a subjective test (purposeful, violent, and aggressive) and an objective test (statistically demonstrated likelihood of injury).

But, today, in Sykes v. United States (No. 09-11311), the Court threw this understanding into doubt, suggesting a considerably more expansive interpretation of the residual clause.

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SCOTUS to Rule on Right to Counsel in Collateral Proceedings

Although the Supreme Court has long recognized that defendants have a right to counsel at the first level of direct appeal, the Court has thus far declined to extend this right to collateral post-conviction proceedings, such as habeas corpus.  Earlier this week, however, the Court agreed to hear a case that will test how firm the distinction really is.  Martinez v. Ryan (No. 10-1001) involves a state-court defendant’s attempt to litigate a claim in collateral proceedings that he was prohibited from raising on direct appeal.  If he has no right to counsel in his collateral proceeding, then he has no right to counsel at all as to this issue.

Here’s what happened.

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SCOTUS Rules That Current Penalties Do Not Govern Whether Prior Conviction Is ACCA Predicate

I continue to be mystified by the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the Armed Career Criminal Act.  The Court has been remarkably active in taking ACCA cases in recent years, but I’m hard-pressed to see much coherence in the outcomes.  On the one hand, there is the Begay line of cases, which have substantially narrowed the definition of “violent felonies” that can be used as a predicate for the ACCA fifteen-year mandatory minimum.  (For background, see my post here.)  Yet, there are plenty of other ACCA cases – many involving short, unanimous decisions, as if the underlying legal issues were entirely unproblematic  – that adopt unnecessarily expansive interpretations of the ACCA triggering language.

Count the Court’s decision today in McNeill v. United States (No. 10-5258) in the latter category.

Here’s the background on McNeill from an earlier post:

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