Reaction to the sentencing cases

Supreme Court watchers are chiming in on yesterday’s trio of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court which gave judges greater discretion to venture outside of federal sentencing guidelines.

Nonprofit bipartisan think tank the Constitution Project applauded the decision in Kimbrough. “The sentencing guidelines in crack-cocaine cases are woefully unfair and dramatically limit the ability of independent judges to do their jobs,” said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project. “The Supreme Court’s decision reinvigorates our system of justice with a sense that penalties should be proportionate to crimes.”

Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, also cheered the decision “At a time of heightened public awareness regarding excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system, today’s ruling affirming judges’ sentencing discretion is critical,” Mauer said. “Harsh mandatory sentences, particularly those for offenses involving crack cocaine, have created unjust racial disparity and excessive punishment for low-level offenses.”

Douglas A. Berman, professor at the Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, commented that despite the much talked about rightward lean of the Roberts Court, on sentencing issues the Court seems to be solidly liberal. (Both Justices Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts joined the majority in all three sentencing cases yesterday.)

“The vote breakdown was very interesting, especially with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito on different sides,” Berman said. “This case proves once again that the Supreme Court might be the most liberal appellate court in the country when it comes to sentencing issues.”

He also summed up the winners and losers in the case “This is a major victory for some criminal defendants, district court judges, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission,” he said. “The losers are the Circuit Courts of Appeals, who take a beating in the opinions for not giving enough respect to either the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker to make the guidelines advisory or to district court efforts to take seriously the idea that the guidelines are truly just advisory, and defendants who did not properly preserve their appeal. Of course, defendants in cases where the judge decides to use his or her discretion to increase a sentence will also be big losers.”

[More after the jump]

The ACLU issued a statement. “The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, and we are thrilled with the Supreme Court’s decision,” stated the comment on the group’s blog by Anjuli Verma of its Drug Law Reform Project. “For two decades, judges have been handcuffed to political decisions to impose ever harsher drug sentences. And even as critics have pointed out the cruelty and irrationality of those sentences, judges and politicians have marched lockstep toward incarceration of drug offenders. This decision marks a reversal in course, by articulating in clear, unmistakable terms that the most infamous of drug sentences is racist and wrong.”

Ellen S. Podgor at the White Collar Crime Prof Blog summed it up this way: “What does this mean in the white collar world? For the defendant – you have much to gain in the trial court, but you also have a lot to lose – be sure and present strong sentencing evidence before the district court judge. For the district court judge – you now have more power and your decision carries a lot more weight; you also have discretion to move beyond the guidelines when the guideline sentence is ‘excessive.’ For the government – don’t just assume the guidelines will be imposed.”

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