(Note to readers: This Supreme Court series will continue with discussion of each of the cases being heard by the Court. With this one and others following, we switch to publishing on the day of the hearing, when interest peaks. Information on how to listen to hearings will be at the end of each report.)
Judges at all levels of government spend much of their time deciding what punishment they are to impose after an individual has been convicted of a crime. No task is more complicated, and the complexity results in part from years of attempts to be sure that sentences are fair. Supposedly, the days of the “hanging judge,” punishing as severely as possible, are over.
Why should sentences be fair? The Constitution seems to require it. The Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” without defining those terms. This is part of the Bill of Rights, added in 1791.
This Amendment originally applied only in federal criminal cases, but the Supreme Court in 1962 made it apply to state and local trials, too. The Court did that in the case of Robinson v. California, striking down a state law making it a crime simply to be a drug addict, with no other criminal act.
In two other places in the Constitution, “due process” is promised, at all levels of government. That is a guarantee that government will use fair procedures in dealing with people, and will make them aware – in advance – of when they will get in legal trouble.
The Supreme Court on Monday takes another look at this broad issue of fairness in federal cases. This is the latest in a string of cases arising under a very complex 1984 law that imposes lengthier prison terms for individuals who are repeat offenders – so-called “career criminals.”
The hearing today also has an unusual element to it: how judges are to take account, in sentencing under the 1984 law, when Congress passes reforms to make some prison terms less harsh and perhaps fairer.
Monday’s hearing: Brown v. United States and Jackson v. United States These are separate cases but the Court will hear them together.
Legal background: This controversy involves a law passed by Congress four decades ago to impose more severe prison terms on individuals who commit the crime of illegally possessing a gun, when those persons have a significant prior criminal record. The law is called the Armed Career Criminal Act.
It imposes a prison sentence of at least 15 years on a person who is found guilty of a federal gun crime, if that person had been convicted three times before of a serious crime (any crime that qualifies as a violent felony and any serious drug crime). either in federal or state court.
Without that kind of a prior record, the two individuals involved in these cases would have faced less prison time – no more than ten years – for their gun crime.
The federal sentencing law specifies that, if the prior record involves crimes under state law, the enhanced sentence applies only if the state defined the prior crimes the same way as comparable federal laws do. The judge in a gun crime case, once there is a conviction, can only impose an enhanced sentence by first finding a match between the state and federal laws.
The facts of these cases: These cases are appeals by two individuals — a York County, PA, man, Justin Rashaad Brown, and a Miami, Fla., man, Eugene Jackson. Each is now serving a 15-year “career criminal” sentence.
At one time, the state convictions on their records involved crimes parallel to federal crimes, but that has since changed. Congress later had narrowed the scope of the once-comparable federal laws, possibly altering the sentencing choice for the judge when each man pleaded guilty to a federal gun crime.
Brown pleaded guilty in federal court in Pennsylvania in a plea bargain. Undercover officers had sold him cocaine on several occasions, and a gun was found in his apartment when he was arrested. Under the plea deal, he admitted his guilt to one count of cocaine trafficking and one count of illegal possession of the pistol.
His prior record included five prior drug convictions, involving cocaine and marijuana. But, at his sentencing, his lawyer argued that by that time Congress had rewritten cocaine laws to ease their severity, and so his prior state crimes were no longer matching. The sentencing judge rejected the argument, and gave him two 15-year-sentences, to be served together (that is, not back-to-back).
A federal appeals court upheld the sentences, ruling that the state and federal criminal laws matched when Brown committed the federal gun crime, making him a career criminal. It did not matter, that court said, what the situation was at the time he was sentenced by the judge.
Jackson’s case was somewhat similar. He was arrested in Miami on drug charges. He tried to flee, but was caught; while running, he threw a pistol to the ground. Charged with illegal gun possession as a felon, he pleaded guilty in a plea bargain.
On his record were five prior convictions in state courts, including two counts of cocaine possession and three counts on other crimes. Two of those other crimes technically did not qualify for the career criminal enhancement. That left three state convictions on his record.
At sentencing, his lawyer contended that the remaining two cocaine convictions should not count because Congress had changed the parallel federal laws by the time he was charged with the gun crime. The trial judge rejected that plea, and imposed a minimum 15-year sentence for the gun crime.
A federal appeals court upheld that sentence, treating the cocaine convictions as qualifying: they matched the federal laws on cocaine in effect at the time Jackson committed those state offenses; it did not matter that they had changed by the time of his federal gun crime conviction.
The two men appealed their cases to the Supreme Court, arguing that federal appeals courts are divided on how to apply the career criminal law when laws involved in the comparison have been changed in the meantime. The Biden Administration’s Justice Department urged the Court to clarify the law.
The questions before the Court: What timing governs whether a person convicted of a federal gun crime can be given a 15-year minimum sentence? Do prior state crimes count, and thus allow that sentence, if a federal law is comparable (a) when the state crimes occurred or (b) when the federal gun crime was committed, or do they not count if the federal law is not comparable when the judge sets a sentence?
Significance: Merely to state the questions at issue is to illustrate the hard choice the Supreme Court is now facing. The lower courts have come to conflicting conclusions about the timing question, so it appears that what Congress intended to do is far from clear.
Getting at the legislative intent is the challenge, but there are plausible reasons for each of the three options: (1) Congress may have wanted the career-criminal finding to be based on the state criminal record when those convictions happened so as to provide more support for state enforcement; or (2) it may have wanted to make the federal gun crime count for more against a repeat offender, or (3) it may have wanted to narrow the use of the 15-year minimum when it was linked to a federal law that Congress had intentionally relaxed, making it no longer comparable.
Each of those seems like a reasonable policy choice, but judges are not supposed to pick and choose among policy choices; rather, they must try as best they can to figure out what was on Congress’s mind. The first two would benefit federal prosecutors, making the 1984 law cover more repeat offenders. Is that what Congress meant to do?
The third choice would clearly narrow the application of the 1984 law, but it also could be chosen if the Justices were to follow a rule that courts are generally supposed to apply when ruling on the meaning of criminal laws: if more than one choice is available, they should opt for the more lenient one. That is an approach that is founded on a basic concept of fairness. Is that what Congress intended?
The Court’s hearing on these combined cases will begin at 10 a.m. today and is scheduled for one hour. The audio (but not the video) will be broadcast “live” on the Court’s homepage, supremecourt.gov To listen, click on “Live Audio” and follow the prompt when the courtroom scene appears lower on the page. The audio also will be available, under the title of the case, on C-Span TV at this link: cspan.org/supremecourt