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Crim Cases on Cake Monday

The big news out of SCOTUS today is on wedding cakes, but there is some criminal law action, too.  There are two sentencing cases and a follow-up to a capital case from five years ago.

Justice Kennedy takes the Understatement of the Day Award in Hughes v. United States, No. 17-155:  "The proper construction of federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure can present close questions of statutory and textual interpretation when implementing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines."  Yup.  The case has to do with reducing sentences when the Guidelines are lowered retroactively.  Congress has authorized such a reduction if the sentence was "based on a sentencing range that has been subsequently lowered ...."  18 U.S.C. ยง3582(c)(2).  In the case of plea/sentence bargains, the "based on" may not be clear.  The bottom line is that the more lenient interpretation prevails, 6-3.  Opinion by Justice Kennedy; dissent by Chief Justice Roberts.

Those of us who were hoping for further guidance on the rule that lower courts should follow when the Supreme Court fails to render a majority opinion (the Marks rule) were handed a fallen cake.

Justice Alito takes the Brevity Prize today for an opinion of only seven 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inch pages in Koons v. United States, No. 17-5716.  A sentence isn't "based on" the Guidelines when it is determined by a statutory mandatory minimum and the "substantial assistance" reduction.  Unanimous.  It's easier to be brief when you don't have those pesky dissents to deal with.
In the Old Business category, the high court declined a second look at the case of Carlos Trevino, the Texas murderer whose case it remanded to the Fifth Circuit in 2013.  Justice Sotomayor wrings her hands for 13 pages over this poor, unfortunate, misunderstood boy.  Completely missing from the 13 pages is any mention whatever of 15-year-old Linda Salinas, who was abducted, raped, sodomized, and stabbed to death by Trevino and his cohorts.

Justice Sotomayor chides the Fifth Circuit for its supposedly "misguided focus."  In the end, she concludes that "considering all the evidence ... it is obvious that 'there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.' "  This is the conclusion of an opinion making no mention at all of the most important evidence on the scale: the horror of this crime and the terror and suffering of the victim.

When Justice Sotomayor was nominated, I had hopes that someone who had actually prosecuted violent criminals would show some balance in considering the victims as well as the defendants, despite her overall leftward tilt.  What a huge disappointment.

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