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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 .
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