Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy Gertner
I am genuinely unsure if the US Sentencing Commission gets to keep working if we end up having a federal government shut-down this week. But I am sure that the USSC starts an official new fiscal year as of tomorrow morning and that any government shut-down is not going to keep federal defendants from being sentenced and that the USSC will be up-and-running in some capacity both sooner and later. For those reasons, I am pleased right now to be able to post these comments sent my way by former federal district judge (and now Harvard law professor) Nancy Gertner about what the USSC ought to be doing as FY 2014 in the federal sentencing system gets underway:
At a time when the “common law of sentencing,” is being shaped in federal district courts, why does the Sentencing Commission only post Circuit Court decisions on its web site? In 2012, sentences that had been appealed on the grounds of unreasonableness were affirmed 95 percent of the time. And that rate has remained steady on the national level: In 2011, the affirmance rate was roughly 94 percent; in 2010 it was approximately 96 percent; and in 2009, 97 percent affirmances. In my circuit, the First Circuit, not a single sentence was deemed unreasonable on appeal in 2011 or 2012, and only a handful of cases qualified in the immediately preceding years. In effect, as with other areas of law where the standards of review are forgiving (think evidentiary appeals on forensic issues which are reviewed for “abuse of discretion” and rarely overturned), the appellate courts are not defining substantive sentencing standards, and imposing only minimal procedural ones.
Clearly most of the meaningful sentencing developments -- the substantive sentencing standards, the guideline analysis and trenchant critique -- are happening at the district court level in the decisions of judges like John Gleeson and Jack Weinstein (S.D.N.Y.), Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa), Ellen Huvelle (D.C.), Paul Friedman (D.C.) and Lynn Adelman (E.D. Wisconsin). While not all judges take the time to write formal sentencing opinions, those that do should have their work circulated by our “expert” Commission rather than being ignored.
If the Commission is interested in minimizing disparity in sentencing in a post-Booker world (which should be one of its goals -- hardly the only one), what better way than to make certain that the opinions of district court judges are communicated more broadly to the federal bench? When these judges offer a reasoned analysis of the Guidelines or an alternative way of analyzing the cases, why not ensure that other judges see their work and decide whether to follow it? Other judges can look at their reasoning– not as binding precedent, but as a template for the cases they see, e.g. here’s one approach to firearms cases, non violent drug offenders, white collar cases, etc. If a common law of sentencing is ever to evolve -- supplementing (or in some cases supplanting) the Guidelines -- why not assist in its development? In a common law system, decisional law establishes standards. Uniformity is not enforced from above -- as in civil code countries -- but evolves from reasoned judicial decisions. In effect, with advisory Guidelines, we have a hybrid system -- Guidelines and decisional law.
To look at the Commission web site, there is only one orthodoxy -- the Guidelines, and Appellate Court decisions that rarely say much of anything. In fact, the message conveyed by the web site is that the Commission is not interested in uniformity as a general matter, just one kind of uniformity -- the uniform enforcement of its flawed product, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Teach the Guidelines. Describe appellate court decisions affirming whatever the district courts do without meaningful analysis. Ignore the fine work of the judges trying to create meaningful standards where it counts the most, in the sentencing of individuals.