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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Letting federal judges do what we pay them to do -- Think!

Minnesota Lawyer published an article this week on how the recent loosening of some of the shackles placed on judges by the federal sentencing guidelines might impact things here in Minnesota. (See "Local federal judges now have more breathing room in sentencing.")

Minnesota has long been at the epicenter of a struggle over how much authority the federal judiciary should have in imposing sentences. Who can forget the constitutional crisis occasioned five years ago when a congressional committee attempted to delve in to the sentencing practices of local U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum? The committee attempted to subpoena the records of cases in which Rosenbaum issued downward departures after Rosenbaum voluntarily testified before the committee advocating greater sentencing discretion for judges. (Click here for more background on this dispute.) The Inquisition-like tactic ignited a firestorm of controversy. The separation-of-powers doctrine was explicitly created to prevent such ham-handed attempts by one branch of government to intrude on the prerogatives of another.

As the Minnesota Lawyer article points out, the U.S. Supreme Court has been moving in the direction of giving judges more discretion to deviate (both upward and downward) from the sentences contained in the guidelines. The high court last month went as far as to strike down caselaw in the 8th Circuit making it extremely difficult for judges to deviate.

To me, it's just common sense to give judges meaningful sentencing discretion. The sentence an offender deserves is highly fact specific. While I think both judges and society in general benefit from guidance to make sure there is some overall consistency, that "guidance" should not handcuff judges by becoming virtually unbreakable rules. There will be cases when a harsher penalty is called for -- and cases where a more lenient sentence is called for. Judges should not have to jump through extraordinary hoops to deviate from the guidelines. We appoint our best legal minds to the federal bench, so why not let them actually use those minds? If we are not going to give judges any real discretion, we might as well develop a software program to impose sentences -- it would be a lot cheaper. But I, for one, would rather have a human being make those decisions after hearing all the facts. It's good to know that the U.S. Supreme Court apparently agrees with me.

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