Newsbrief: Rehnquist Rakes Congress on Interference in Sentencing 1/2/04

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US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist pointedly criticized Congress Wednesday for passing a law this spring intended to prevent federal judges from granting softer sentences than required by federal sentencing guidelines. The law, known as the Feeney Amendment for its sponsor, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL), gained approval after being attached to an unrelated but politically popular "Amber Alert" bill. It instructs the US Sentencing Commission to issue new rules to "ensure that the incidence of downward departures is substantially reduced." The Feeney Amendment requires the commission to keep records of judges' departures from the harsh federal guidelines and report them to the Attorney General and to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

Federal judges have increasingly complained that the sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences hamper their ability to craft sentences that are just. In September, the Judicial Conference of the United States, a group of 27 judges who set policy for the federal courts, voted unanimously to ask Congress to repeal the amendment. And the fact that Chief Justice Rehnquist made it the focus of his annual year-end report on the courts indicates that dissatisfaction has reached the highest levels of the federal judiciary.

The legislation "could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties," Rehnquist said. "It seems that the traditional interchange between the Congress and the judiciary broke down" when Congress passed the amendment without any input from the bench, he added. "By constitutional design," said the chief justice, judges have had "an institutional commitment to the independent administration of justice and are able to see the consequences of judicial reform proposals that legislative sponsors may not be in a position to see."

The chief justice also criticized Congress for dissing the federal courts. Rehnquist said that while "judges are bound to respect" congressional perspectives on how to run the courts, that respect should be a two-way street . "Consultation with the judiciary," he said, "will improve both the process and the product."

But if Rehnquist wanted respect, he wasn't getting it from House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), who issued a statement Wednesday in response to the chief justice's criticism. It's not that the Congress didn't know what the judges wanted, Sensenbrenner said, it's just that it didn't care. "This disagreement," he said, "resulted from a policy dispute between Congress and the judiciary and did not result from any breakdown in communication between the branches or a lack of opportunity for judges to express their thoughts on this issue."

Federal prisons held an all-time record high of more than 163,000 prisoners at the end of 2002, generated in large part by the war on drugs. While the prison population in the states has stagnated in recent years, growth of the federal prison system has increased at an average of 5.8% a year since 1995, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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