A little more than a week ago, Carissa Hessick wrote a PrawfsBlawg post about the Supreme Court’s decision in Hughes v. United States. Hughes decided whether a defendant who entered a “Type C” plea agreement could have his or her sentence reduced after the U.S. Sentencing Commission retroactively reduced the defendant’s Sentencing Guidelines range under the federal Sentencing Guidelines. Hughes answered that question in the affirmative because “a sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is ‘based on’ the defendant’s Guidelines range so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement.”
In her post, Carissa noted that Hughes largely ignored the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Beckles v. United States, which held that the Sentencing Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges. Beckles reached that conclusion on the ground that defendants’ sentences are not really affected by the Sentencing Guidelines, since district courts are not required to sentence defendants within the ranges provided for by the Sentencing Guidelines. In other words, defendants’ sentences are not really dictated by (or, one could say, based on) the Guidelines after all.
I joked that Carissa’s post should have actually been titled “Beckles v. United States As Anti-Canon.” After today’s sentencing opinions, I decided to write that post up myself.
Today’s first sentencing opinion is Chavez-Mesa v. United States. In Chavez-Mesa, the Court determined whether a district court’s form order in a sentence reduction proceeding was sufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review of a defendant’s sentence. The Court basically said that it was. Importantly, the Court rejected the government’s suggestion that district courts have no obligation in sentence reduction proceedings to explain their chosen sentences, as they do in original sentencing proceedings. Rather, the Court held that, assuming district courts have the same obligation, the district court’s explanation on this record was sufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review.
The Court then said the following:
[T]he Guidelines ranges reflect to some degree what many, perhaps most, judges believed in the pre-Guidelines era was a proper sentence based upon the criminal behavior at issue and the characteristics of the offender. Thus, a judge’s choice among points on a range will often simply reflect the judge’s belief that the chosen sentence is the “right” sentence (or as close as possible to the “right” sentence) based on various factors, including those found in §3553(a).
In other words, the mere fact that a defendant’s sentence is within the guidelines range suggests the district court considered the sentencing factors under section 3553(a). That proposition makes within-Guideline sentences more difficult to challenge on appeal than outside-Guideline sentences. It thus solidifies the role of the Guidelines in federal sentencing and also gives district courts an incentive to sentence within the guidelines range, since those sentences would be harder to disturb on appeal. It provides another procedural mechanism that will make defendants’ sentences “based on” the Sentencing Guidelines, which Beckles said they were not, thus undermining Beckles in the process. (The Court in Chavez-Mesa also pointed to the district court’s original explanation in the original sentencing proceeding, and the court’s statement that he had considered the pertinent factors in the sentencing reduction proceeding.)
Today’s second sentencing opinion is Rosales-Mireles v. United States. In Rosales-Mireles, the Court rejected the Fifth Circuit’s standard that a defendant must demonstrate that an error “shock[s] the conscience” in order to establish that an error “seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” (A defendant must show that an error “seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings,” in order to obtain relief under the “plain error” standard, which applies to errors on appeal the defendant did not previously raise.) Instead, the Court held that “A plain Guidelines error that affects a defendant’s substantial rights is precisely the type of error that ordinarily warrants relief under Rule 52(b).”
Why is a “plain Guidelines error … precisely the type of error that ordinarily warrants relief under Rule 52(b)”? The Court said it is because “an error resulting in a higher range than the Guidelines provide usually establishes a reasonable probability that a defendant will serve a prison sentence that is more than ‘necessary’ to fulfill the purposes of incarceration.” In plain English: Guidelines ranges affect defendant’s sentences, and an error in the length of a sentence affects the fairness of judicial proceedings. Here too, the Court is underscoring that Guidelines shape, if not dictate, defendant’s sentences, further undermining Beckles in the process.
The dissent underscores that tension even further. The dissent would have held that an error in a defendant’s guidelines range does not affect the fairness or integrity of the judicial proceedings because the guidelines do not control defendants’ sentences. To support that proposition, the dissent said this:
But the Guidelines are not “law.” They neither “define criminal offenses” nor “fix the permissible sentences for criminal offenses.” Beckles v. United States.
(The author of the dissent was also the author in Beckles.)
The whiplash in the Court’s federal sentencing cases is wild. You have Peugh v. United States, which held that the Guidelines are subject to the Ex Post Facto Clause because they have such substantial force over a defendant’s sentence. Then you have Molina-Martinez v. United States, which held that a Guidelines error will almost always affect a defendant’s substantial rights, again because the Guidelines have such substantial force over a defendant’s sentence. Then you have Beckles v. United States, which held that Guidelines are not amenable to vagueness challenges because they do not really establish defendants’ sentences. And today you have Chavez-Mesa, which made it more likely that the Guidelines would substantially affect defendant’s sentences, and Rosales-Mireles, which recognized that they already do.
One of these things is not like the others. That thing is Beckles v. United States. A purely advisory Sentencing Guidelines system might very well not be subject to vagueness challenges. But that’s not the Sentencing Guidelines system that we have, as the Court reminded us today (and reminds us most days).