Supreme Court Unties Hands of Federal Sentencing Judges

The Supreme Court untied the hands of federal sentencing judges today by holding that, unless the statutory provision allowing for a sentence reduction expressly prevents the judge from considering certain facts in crafting the new sentence, the judge may use his broad discretion to impose whatever sentence he sees fit in that case. See Concepcion v. United States, No. 20-1650 (S. Ct. June 28, 2022).

Though it was a case dealing with a sentence reduction under the First Step Act`s changes to the crack cocaine sentencing scheme, which opened qualifying drug offenses for resentencing under the revised crack cocaine laws enacted in 2010, the Court`s opinion firmly establishes that federal sentencing judges may consider all sorts of facts and evidence when deciding to reduce a sentence, even years later.

The case came out of the Dist. of Massachusetts, where Carlos Concepcion was sentenced in 2009 for a crack and powder cocaine offense. He was subject to 5 to 40 years in prison, but because of a prior drug offense in state court, that doubled to 10 years to life, under 21 U.S.C. sec 851. He was also deemed a “career offender” because of some prior violent convictions in state court that increased his U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to just under 30 years in prison. But Concepcion got some leniency and Dist. Judge William G. Young handed him 228 months, citing his troubled youth.

When the First Step Act of 2018 took effect, lowering his sentence exposure for the crack offense, he filed for relief and was denied. The district court held that it lacked the discretion under the Act to consider any changes in the law or his good behavior since his sentencing in 2009. A split First Circuit upheld the denial, over a vigorous dissent by Judge David J. Barron, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Justice Sotomayor began by noting that “a judge at sentencing considers the whole person before him or her as an individual,” and that the judge “considers the defendant on that day, not on the date of his offense or the date of his conviction.”

The Court held that when a statute does not expressly prevent a sentencing judge from considering certain factors, it has the “wide discretion” to consider all kinds of factors:

It is only when Congress of the Constitution limits the scope of information that a district court may consider in deciding whether, and to what extent, to modify a sentence, that a district court`s discretion to consider information is restrained. Nothing in the Frist Step Act contains such a limitation. Because district courts are always obligated to consider nonfrivolous arguments presented by the parties, the Fist Step Act requires district courts to consider intervening changes when parties raise them.

There were four dissenting Justices (led by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and joined by Justices Robertson, Alito, and Barrett) who would have upheld the lower court`s lack of discretion in modifying a sentence. They pointed out that the First Step Act “reflects a compromise among competing interests” in Congress and that it was a “heavily negotiated” piece of legislation. “The Court`s decision today unravels the legislative compromise reflected in the statutory text,” the dissent said.

But this ignores one critical point: The legislative history of a statute is only considered when the text of the statute is ambiguous and further meaning must be derived from what the lawmakers intended. Nobody claimed that the text of the statute in this case was ambiguous. Instead, the dissenters looked to the legislative history to undermine the idea that federal sentencing judges should have any discretion at sentencing. I think this is misleading, at best.


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