Newsbrief: House Panel Goes After Federal Judge for Being Too Lenient on Drug Offenders 3/14/03

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The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), is going after a federal judge who had the temerity to both challenge federal sentencing guidelines in testimony before the committee and to actually occasionally sentence low-level drug defendants to less time than federal guidelines require. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the committee will subpoena records from Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum of Minnesota's federal district court. The move comes one month after the committee asked the General Accounting Office to review sentencing decisions by all federal judges in the state.

The Journal called the move against Rosenbaum "an extraordinary step" in the fight over the direction of the federal judiciary.

Rosenbaum appeared before the committee in May 2002 to testify against a bill to reinstate longer drug sentences after the US Sentencing Commission acted to lower penalties for some first-time drug offenders. In his testimony, Rosenbaum criticized federal sentencing guidelines that punish "minor and minimal participants" as if they were drug kingpins.

While that bill failed, Rosenbaum's testimony alerted the panel to his sentencing practices. Republican members of the committee told the Journal that Rosenbaum -- gasp! -- actually imposed sentences lighter than required by the guidelines on several defendants. In one case cited by the congressmen, Rosenbaum said that a defendant's involvement was limited to taking money for accepting a package, and sentenced her to six-months instead of the mandatory minimum four-year sentence. In a second case, Rosenbaum sentenced a drug defendant to 120 months, one month less than required by the guidelines. "Now that represents an illegal departure," Rosenbaum joked, but the House Republicans aren't laughing.

The committee and Rosenbaum have been squabbling for the last few months over whether he would provide committee investigators with access to sealed transcripts and other information. Now, it appears, the committee is tired of waiting. The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-VA) called the move to subpoena Rosenbaum's records a "bizarre overreaction."

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