Court Wrestles With Vagueness and Retroactivity in Sentencing Context

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? (more…)

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

My 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…

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Supreme Court to Tackle Constitutionality of Residual Clause in Sentencing Guidelines

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. (more…)

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