Newsbrief: More Federal Judges Object to New Sentencing Discretion Limits 1/30/04

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The chorus of complaints from the federal judiciary over a new law limiting judges' discretion grew louder this week as the chief judges of the federal courts in the US 9th Circuit Court added their collective voice to the clamor. They are complaining about the Feeney amendment, named for its sponsor, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL). The measure, attached to the politically popular Amber Alert bill, which passed in April, limits federal judges' ability to sentence defendants to lesser sentences than those called for in federal sentencing guidelines. It includes a provision that requires the Justice Department to report to Congress each time a judge grants such a downward departure from the guidelines.

Federal judges already chafing under the restrictions imposed by mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines, and sometimes appalled by being forced to apply them to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, have reacted angrily to what they see as a further congressional and Justice Department usurpation of their powers. 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 in his year-end state of the courts speech, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court William Rehnquist lashed out at the amendment, saying it "could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties."

This week, the 15 chief district judges of the US 9th Circuit met in Laguna Beach, California. After the meeting, Judge John Coughenour of Seattle told the Associated Press the group had "virtual unanimity" in its disdain for the law. The amendment, which was the brainchild of the John Ashcroft Justice Department, was drafted without consulting judges, Coughenour said, and ignored the recommendations of the US Sentencing Commission, created by Congress expressly to set sentencing with such recommendations.

Judge Ancer Haggerty of Portland, Oregon, told the AP that Congress erred by using misleading statistics to suggest federal judges initiated most downward departures. "If you look at the overall number of times a judge supposedly departed, it was done at the request of the government in most cases," Haggerty said.

The 9th Circuit includes federal courts in Hawaii, Arizona, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, as well as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

And the black-robed rebellion against congressional efforts to mandate harsh prison sentences with little opportunity for judicial discretion festers.

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