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Judge Bennett Unintentionally Makes the Case for Mandatory Minimums

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The reason the federal judicial branch is not politically accountable is that it is placed by the Constitution outside politics.  Every one of the federal district court judges I've encountered over 40 years in practice understands this.  No matter what their political beliefs, they have conducted themselves with the circumspection and restraint their power assumes, and requires.

As is clear by now, I have never encountered US District Judge Mark Bennett of Iowa, formerly  --  and, so it would seem, presently  --  a powerhouse in the ACLU.

Judge Bennett recently gave a long speech to (at least) a CNN audience on how Congress is a bunch of callous ciphers.  He intended to make the case against Congressionally-enacted mandatory minimum sentences.  Instead, by both the substance of his remarks and his indiscipline in making them, he showed why they're needed.
The CNN piece is here.  It starts with the tale of a dealer in meth  --  a life-destroying drug  --  who appeared for sentencing in his courtroom.  Judge Bennett sentenced her to the required five years  --  a short enough term for trafficking in a drug that dangerous  --  but only because he faced certain reversal if he indulged his personal preference for much less.  He settled instead for a grandstanding speech a few hours later, a speech given in the well of his courtroom but which would have been an embarrassment even if given in the smoke-filled political rally where it belonged.

As the piece relates:

Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust -- but that he is handcuffed by the law, which leaves no room for judicial discretion to consider a sentence based on individual circumstances of the defendant. 

Really, 80% are unjust?  Did CNN survey a representative sample of other district judges to see if they agree with 80%?  Or 50%?  Or 10%? Or maybe 0%?  Did it survey more than a single additional judge (Judge Gritzner), about any case at all? Did it ask any of the over 600 other district judges if they thought mandatory minimums were stern or tough or harsh, but perhaps not so egregious as to be "unjust?" Not so far as I can find in the story.  Instead, to push its own view of sentencing, CNN publishes a long feature about a single judge who is, by any fair measure, at the far end of the liberal spectrum.

Now writing such a skewed and incurious article is fine for CNN, because it's a private organization (although it would be better if its piece were frankly labeled as the editorial it is, rather than impersonating a "news story").  But it's another thing altogether for a sitting judge to make himself the center of it.  I guess judicial modesty is for other jurisdictions.

But wait, there's more.

Bennett thinks [the Attorney General's policy of ordinarily charging the most serious readily provable offense] is unjust. "I basically couldn't live with myself if I didn't speak out," he says, standing in the center of his courtroom only hours after sentencing Rice. "I'm compelled to talk about it because I think it's one of the gravest injustices in the history of America."

Two things to note here.

First, if a judge must unburden himself of this sort of thing, he could at least have the respect for the apolitical character of the judiciary to hold forth somewhere other than "in the center of his courtroom only hours after sentencing," with the cameras rolling at full blast.

Second, the idea that giving a willing meth dealer five years imprisonment, instead of the year or 18 months Judge Bennett would have preferred  -- or, for that matter, routinely giving out five year sentences for dealing hard drugs  -- constitutes "one of the gravest injustices in the history of America" is facially preposterous.  It's enough to make Jack Weinstein.(http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2013/09/judge-weinstein-makes-the-case.html) look like Learned Hand. 

It's also breathtakingly callous toward some of the grave injustices Judge Bennett can read about just as well as the rest of us. Recall, for example:  the amateurish, politically rigged prosecution of six police officers, black and white, in Baltimore; OJ Simpson's asinine acquittal from two murders the world knows he committed; Kenneth McDuff's foolhardy release from a death sentence and subsequent torture-murder of at least three and probably thirteen teenagers; the skyrocketing slaughter of African American men in Chicago while the city fathers congratulate themselves on their progressivism; or the gruesome slashing murders of two little girls by Wendell Callahan, murders enabled through Callahan's early release by another federal judge with the same sympathies Judge Bennett embraces.

Where's the accountability for those injustices?  The outrage?  And where, indeed, is even the sense of loss?

Judge Bennett's supposedly mistreated traffickers will return one day from the mandatory sentences Bennett views as too long.  The same cannot be said of the dozens or hundreds of murder victims we see in this country, killed in part because of judicial attitudes rooted in personal taste; or because of tragically misguided judicial hubris  -- and exposing the irrational, idiosyncratic and random over-leniency it produces. From the graveyards where those victims lie, there will be no return. 

Judge Bennett set out to prove that mandatory minimums are not only harsh but unnecessary. With his outlier views on sentencing, it took him less than five minutes to prove the opposite.


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