High Court Searches for Sentencing Explanation Rule

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By Jordan S. Rubin

A meth conspirator’s appeal led the U.S. Supreme Court to scrutinize April 23 how much trial judges need to explain their sentencing decisions.

If a clear rule exists, the conspirator’s lawyer, Todd A. Coberly, couldn’t articulate it. That frustrated several of the justices.

On the other hand, members of the court also wondered whether the government’s stance—that judges can simply check a box on a form saying they considered the relevant factors—is too rigid.

That stance was advanced at oral argument on the government’s behalf by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. President Trump, who appointed him, has criticized Rosenstein’s appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

A decision in the case is expected by late June.

Meth, Minimums

In 2013, Adaucto Chavez-Meza pleaded guilty to conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

He initially received a minimum sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines range for drug crimes. After those guidelines were retroactively lowered, he wanted to again get the minimum sentence.

The judge lowered his sentence but not to the bottom of the new range. Handing down the new sentence, the judge checked a box on a form saying it had “taken into account the policy statement” in the guideline as well as the relevant sentencing factors.

That wasn’t enough, Coberly argued April 23.

In some circuits, judges have to more fully explain their reasoning when not granting “proportional reductions,” and in others—like the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit here—judges can just check a box on a boilerplate form saying they took the relevant law into consideration, Chavez-Meza’s petition for Supreme Court review said.

The case is Chavez-Meza v. United States , U.S., No. 17-5639, argued 4/23/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com

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