For the professional edge in your day-to-day practice, rely on the most timely, objective reporting on significant developments, trends, and emerging patterns in criminal law today—Criminal Law...
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein beat a New Mexico drug dealer in a close case at the U.S. Supreme Court June 18.
A trial judge’s sentencing decision that was less favorable than the dealer wanted was reasonable under the circumstances, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the high court. He was joined by an unusual coalition: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The case isn’t a blockbuster—in a term with several candidates—and may be best remembered for the fact that it was argued by Rosenstein, who has drawn President Donald Trump’s ire after appointing special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Rosenstein “was honored to argue before the Supreme Court, and we are pleased with the decision,” a DOJ spokesperson said.
Trump appointee Neil M. Gorsuch didn’t participate in the case. It came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the federals appeals court on which Gorsuch sat before he was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Adaucto Chavez-Meza’s lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request comment.
Chavez-Meza pleaded guilty in 2013 to conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He got what was at the time the minimum sentence under the guidelines for drug crimes. After those guidelines were retroactively lowered, he sought to again get the minimum.
The judge did lower the sentence, but not to the bottom of the new range. The judge checked a box on a form saying the court had taken the necessary factors into account, but didn’t explain them further.
That, plus the judge’s statements at the initial sentencing, was enough under the circumstances, Breyer wrote.
A judge’s sentencing choice “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 the factors noted on the form, Breyer wrote. It’s “unsurprising that changing the applicable range may lead a judge to choose a nonproportional point on the new range.”
Judges don’t need to provide lengthy explanations if the “context and record” show the judge had a “reasoned basis” for the sentencing decision, Breyer wrote.
That standard was satisfied here. Among other things, the judge during the original sentencing noted the “significant quantity” of drugs Chavez-Meza distributed. The judge had also harped on the substance itself: methamphetamine. The drug “destroys individual lives, it destroys families, it can destroy communities,” the judge said at the original sentencing.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dissented, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “Under these circumstances, in my view the District Court’s order was insufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review,” he wrote.
Kennedy pointed to what he called a serious problem: “the difficulty for prisoners and appellate courts in ascertaining a district court’s reasons for imposing a sentence when the court fails to state those reasons on the record.”
The dissenting justices weren’t comforted by the fact that the judge had given a fuller explanation at the original sentencing.
Despite the serious problem, Kennedy went on to say that the issue is easily remedied by “just a slight expansion” of the form. “If the form were expanded to include just a few more categories covering the factors most often bearing on a trial court’s sentencing determination, the objections petitioner raises likely would be met.”
But the court’s decision today “is detrimental to the judicial system and to prisoners alike,” Kennedy said.
The case is Chavez-Meza v. United States, U.S., No. 17-5639, affirmed 6/18/18 .
To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at email@example.com
Copyright © 2018 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
All Bloomberg BNA treatises are available on standing order, which ensures you will always receive the most current edition of the book or supplement of the title you have ordered from Bloomberg BNA’s book division. As soon as a new supplement or edition is published (usually annually) for a title you’ve previously purchased and requested to be placed on standing order, we’ll ship it to you to review for 30 days without any obligation. During this period, you can either (a) honor the invoice and receive a 5% discount (in addition to any other discounts you may qualify for) off the then-current price of the update, plus shipping and handling or (b) return the book(s), in which case, your invoice will be cancelled upon receipt of the book(s). Call us for a prepaid UPS label for your return. It’s as simple and easy as that. Most importantly, standing orders mean you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you’re relying on. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.960.1220 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put me on standing order at a 5% discount off list price of all future updates, in addition to any other discounts I may quality for. (Returnable within 30 days.)
Notify me when updates are available (No standing order will be created).
This Bloomberg BNA report is available on standing order, which ensures you will all receive the latest edition. This report is updated annually and we will send you the latest edition once it has been published. By signing up for standing order you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you need. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.372.1033, option 5, or by sending us an email to email@example.com.
Put me on standing order
Notify me when new releases are available (no standing order will be created)