Appellate Review of Sentences: Reconsidering Deference
Michael M. O'Hear
Marquette University - Law School
September 16, 2009
William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 51, 2010
Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 09-33
American appellate courts have long resisted calls that they play a more robust role in the sentencing process, insisting that they must defer to what they characterize as the superior sentencing competence of trial judges. This position is unfortunate insofar as rigorous appellate review might advance uniformity and other rule-of-law values that are threatened by broad trial-court discretion. This Article thus provides the first systematic critique of the appellate courts’ standard justifications for deferring to trial-court sentencing decisions. For instance, these justifications are shown to be based on premises that are inconsistent with empirical research on cognition and decision-making. Despite the shortcomings of the standard justifications, the Article suggests that there is a stronger argument for deference that is based on the trial judge’s background knowledge regarding the particular circumstances of the local community and courthouse. Even the potential benefits of localization, though, do not clearly outweigh the rule-of-law costs of appellate deference. Thus, the Article concludes with a proposal for a sliding-scale approach to deference that strengthens the appellate role, but also accommodates localization values in the cases in which they are most salient.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 46
Keywords: sentencing, deference, appellate, localization
JEL Classification: K14, K4, K41
Date posted: September 18, 2009 ; Last revised: April 22, 2010
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