Appellate Discretion and Sentencing after Booker
44 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2008 Last revised: 21 Jul 2008
Date Written: June 19, 2008
When the Supreme Court in United States v. Booker rendered the United States Sentencing Guidelines advisory, most analysts initially predicted that federal sentencing would be invigorated by a "surge of judicial discretion." Many defense attorneys and members of the news media hailed the decision a victory for criminal defendants, while others celebrated Booker for its emancipation of district court judges from the tyranny of the Guidelines. Less explored in Booker's immediate aftermatch was how the decision would affect the courts of appeals' review of district court sentencing decisions. What has resulted is primarily confusion about the role of the appellate courts in reviewing sentences. Several often seemingly conflicting imperatives are at play after Booker: the district court's discretion to impose a sentence unconstrained by the Guidelines, the obligation of the court of appeals to show deference to the substantive judgment of the district court, and the simultaneous authority of the court of appeals to review (and thus to disagree with) the substantive reasonableness of the sentence the district court has imposed. The challenge after Booker is, in light of these imperatives, how to define the scope of the courts of appeals' authority with respect to sentencing, or what I call "appellate discretion" to review district court sentencing decisions. Although there is a logical way to balance appellate discretion with deference to the district court, too often after Booker the courts of appeals have tipped to one extreme or the other.
In this article, I explore post-Booker sentencing cases in the courts of appeals. In Part II, I provide a brief history of sentencing law from before the adoption of the Sentencing Guidelines up through Booker, highlighting the changes in appellate discretion over this period coinciding with the shift from no Guidelines to mandatory Guidelines to the current advisory-Guidelines system. In Part III, I explore the confusion that has resulted since Booker, which has manifested in a series of circuit splits centering largely on the circuits' different understandings of their own discretion after Booker. I also explain how certain of these splits were resolved by the Supreme Court's decisions in Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough. In Part IV, I focus on the Eleventh Circuit's sentencing cases since Booker, Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough, exploring the underlying theme of the Circuit's struggle to define its own discretion. Finally, in Part V, I advance a modest proposal for what I view as the proper appellate role in sentencing decisions after Booker, proposing specific rules for appellate review based on the Supreme Court's guidance in Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough. By observing these rules, the Eleventh Circuit, and all of the courts of appeals, would more faithfully execute the type of limited abuse-of-discretion review that the Supreme Court has envisioned for the courts of appeals after Booker.
Keywords: sentencing, Booker, criminal, courts of appeals, discretion
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