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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

SCOTUS Term: Chavez-Mesa and Sentencing Appeals

Yesterday, Supreme Court decided another federal sentencing case, Chavez-Meza v. United States. In 2013, the defendant pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute and he was sentenced to 135 months in prison.  That sentence was at the very bottom of the relevant Federal Sentencing Guideline range.  After the defendant’s sentencing, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced the relevant sentencing guideline range from 135-168 months to 108-135 months.  The defendant sought a resentencing under the new, lower range.  The judge agreed to lower his range, but imposed a sentence of 114 months, rather than the 108 month sentence the defendant had requested.  The judge did not provide any explanation for the new sentence.  Instead, the judge merely checked a box granting the motion for a sentencing reduction on a form that stated that the judge had considered the defendant’s motion and taking into account the relevant Guideline’s policy statement and statutory sentencing factors.  (A copy of the form can be found at the end of the opinion.)

The defendant was entitled to appeal his new sentence, and he did.  Sentencing decisions are subject to abuse of discretion review on appeal, and so one might wonder how the appellate court was supposed to review the defendant’s sentence without any explanation for the judge’s decision.  As Judge Posner put this point in United States v. Cunningham, 429 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 2005)

[W]henever a district judge is required to make a discretionary ruling that is subject to appellate review, we have to satisfy ourselves, before we can conclude that the judge did not abuse his discretion, that he exercised his discretion, that is, that he considered the factors relevant to that exercise. A rote statement that the judge considered all relevant factors will not always suffice; the temptation to a busy judge to impose the guidelines sentence and be done with it, without wading into the vague and prolix statutory factors, cannot be ignored.

But in a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court Justices nonetheless affirmed the sentence in this case.  Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer failed to explain how an appellate court is supposed to conduct abuse of discretion review if there is no explanation of a lower court’s decision.  Instead, he pointed to the Court’s decision in a prior case which had affirmed a sentence that was supported by nothing more than the sentencing judge’s statement that the within-Guidelines sentence it imposed was “appropriate.”

I have no doubt that if this sentence had been outside of the Guidelines, then a majority of the Court would have said that an explanation was absolutely required. But instead we see this from the majority:

[T]he Guidelines ranges reflect to some degree what many, perhaps most, judges believed in the pre-Guidelines era was a proper sentence based upon the criminal behavior at issue and the characteristics of the offender. Thus, a judge's choice among points on a range will often simply reflect the judge's belief that the chosen sentence is the “right” sentence (or as close as possible to the “right” sentence) based on various factors, including those found in § 3553(a). Insofar as that is so, it is unsurprising that changing the applicable range may lead a judge to choose a nonproportional point on the new range. We see nothing that favors the one or the other. So, as is true of most Guidelines sentences, the judge need not provide a lengthy explanation if the “context and the record” make clear that the judge had “a reasoned basis” for reducing the defendant's sentence.

I think this may be the most blatant statement from the Court that we need only subject non-Guidelines sentences to appellate review.  Previous decisions had been more circumspect about the idea that within-Guidelines sentences ought to receive essentially no appellate scrutiny.  The Court’s decision to overtly embrace the idea in Chavez-Meza was not accompanied by any real attempt to reconcile differential appellate review with the holding in United States v. Booker, which rendered the Federal Sentencing Guidelines “advisory” in order to protect them from Sixth Amendment challenge.

What is more, the idea that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines represent what most judges think is an appropriate sentence is demonstrably false.  (See pages 1490-91 of this article and pages 6-14 of this article for thorough explanations of why that statement is false.)  As one of the original members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Justice Breyer knows that this statement is false.  And he knows that the statement is especially untrue when it comes to sentencing ranges for drug crimes.

Chavez-Meza v. United States is yet another demonstration that the Supreme Court has utterly abandoned appellate review principles in its post-Booker sentencing cases. 

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on June 19, 2018 at 11:48 AM in 2018 End of Term, Carissa Byrne Hessick, Criminal Law, Judicial Process | Permalink

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Posted by: Mr Kanagavijayan | Jun 23, 2018 11:25:20 AM

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