Federal sentencing guidelines are vague and ambiguous, due to differences in U.S. Supreme Court opinions and the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s judicial rules of court, according to The Hill opinion contributor Dawinder Sidhu.
The Supreme Court has refused to resolve conflicts between federal appeals courts regarding court rules. It deferred those duties to the Sentencing Commission, which has not had a quorum in the past three years, Sidhu reported in a Dec. 1, 2021 opinion article for The Hill.
“Anyone interested in coherence and consistency in criminal justice should be troubled by the court’s refusal to review conflicts involving the federal sentencing guidelines,” said Sidhu. “It is one thing to be discerning in case selection; it is another to step aside altogether from guideline cases that implicate the fair and uniform administration of justice.”
The Supreme Court has a primary role that requires it to resolve questions of conflicting law and disagreements by the federal appellate courts.
“The problem,” said Sidhu “…is that the court has refused to hear all guideline conflicts, not just those the commission is actively addressing. In adopting this broad position, the court has ceded its role of ironing out judicial conflicts to the commission.”
The commission, even at its full capacity, lacks the capacity to take on many of the conflicting cases, according to The Hill article.
In cases where there has been judicial conflict, the Supreme Court has regularly abstained from interfering with the parallel administration or state proceedings of law, reported Sidhu.
Since 1987, more than 1.9 million individuals have been sentenced under federal sentencing guidelines. Disagreements about the meaning of the guidelines have led to sentencing disparities that range from “fixed terms” to a “life sentence.”
Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor have opined that the court should not hear a sentencing guideline case. They reasoned that the U.S. Sentencing Commission should “address the issue in the first instance.”
However, according to Sidhu, the Supreme Court did take a case to resolve a conflict in 1991. At issue was the question of whether a stipulation must be contained in the formal plea agreement instructions if the stipulation did not establish a higher offense.
The Supreme Court held that regardless of whether the stipulation had to be in the form of a plea agreement, the substance did not establish a higher offense, according to the article.
In the court’s action, it also added language to the disposition of the case. The court added that “because the commission possessed the authority to amend the guidelines in response to interpretive conflicts, the court should be ‘more restrained and circumspect in … resolving such conflicts,’” said Sidhu.
This posture of the Supreme Court refusing to hear all guideline conflicts is a broad position that now has ceded its role of ironing out judicial conflicts, leaving the commission with no clear answer.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “No other federal agency — in any branch — has ever performed a role anything like it.”
Sidhu added, “Indeed, the court does not forgo consideration of a case when Congress or an administrative agency may one day amend a statute or regulation producing conflict.”