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October 2, 2023

Supreme Court hears two cases on federal sentencing guidelines

On October 2, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on two cases dealing with federal sentencing guidelines. Gall v. United States and Kimbrough v. United States are the latest in a series of cases that outline to what extent a judge must adhere to the federal guidelines when handing down rulings.

Gall's case challenges the current understanding of below-guideline sentences, which require that a judge demonstrate "extraordinary circumstances" when handing down a punishment below the federal guidelines. Kimbrough asks the court to clarify the amount of discretion judges have in cases dealing with crack cocaine, a drug for which Congress has laid out very clear penalties.

The Court will be making rulings on both these cases in the coming months. Please check back for updates as these cases continue to develop.

September 5, 2023

U.S. Supreme Court to consider a new federal sentencing guidelines case

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Gall v. United States this term. Gall is the latest in a series of cases that outline to what extent judges must adhere to the federal sentencing guidelines. The most recent decision was handed down in Gall v. United States, No. 06-5754, which found that sentences falling within the federal guidelines could be presumed reasonable by an appellate court.

As it stands now, a judge must show that sentences outside the federal guidelines are the result of "extraordinary circumstances." Gall v. United States asks the Supreme Court to reconsider the need for "extraordinary circumstances" and allow judges to use discretion and individual consideration when handing down a punishment. A ruling in favor of Gall could provide defendants with a greater chance of surviving the appeal process in cases where the judge found it appropriate to hand down a reduced sentence.

Click Here for the 8th Circuit Court´s opinion on Gall´s case.

Gall v. United States is scheduled for argument in the Supreme Court on October 2, 2007. Please check back for updates.

Update: Congress Revisits Sentencing Guidelines

On June 25, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Rita v. U.S. The decision clarifies previous decisions that define federal sentencing guidelines as advisory. According to the new definition, it is acceptable for appellate courts to presume a sentence is reasonable if it falls within the guidelines provided by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

In practice, the court´s ruling insulates sentences that fall within the guidelines from challenge on appeal. This is a dangerous precedent, considering that it limits options for defendants who feel they have been sentenced too harshly. The ruling will also make it more difficult for defendants to argue that mitigating circumstances—such as the health issues mentioned in Rita´s case—should prevent them from receiving lengthy prison sentences.

The decision will encourage within-guideline sentences and limits the likely effect of the court´s previous rulings on federal sentencing guidelines.

To view a copy of the court´s ruling click here.

The Supreme Court rules, Congress responds

On January 12, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to force federal judges to increase sentences based on facts not presented to and found by a jury. Prior to this ruling, federal judges regularly increased sentences in this manner under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

In a companion opinion issued the same day, the Supreme Court declared that the sentencing ranges contained in the Sentencing Guidelines, which judges were previously required to follow, should be treated just as advisory. These two rulings do not, however, affect mandatory minimums enacted by Congress.

As a result of these rulings, on April 6, 2005, U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner introduced the Defending America´s Most Vulnerable: Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2005. As Professor Frank Bowman wrote in a letter to Congress, the bill transforms the Federal Sentencing Guidelines into a complex system of mandatory minimum sentences.

To view a copy of the bill text, please click here. To see an analysis of the section of the bill that responds to the Supreme Court rulings, please click here.

Tell your members of Congress to oppose mandatory minimums today by clicking here.

“In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust.”
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

If you agree…

Write Congress to tell them that mandatory minimums are unjust.