The Libby Letters: Reflections on Sentencing and Mercy in a Post-Booker World
73 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2009
Much has been written about the Booker revolution that led to the fall of the mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Because the Guidelines had been widely assailed as a rigid system that frequently led to unjust sentences, it comes as little surprise that most of the commentary has been celebratory. With the judiciary's new found discretion comes the chance to bring mercy back in from the cold after years of exile. Now, however, the hard work begins. The Guidelines, despite their shortcomings, were instituted in response to a very real problem of disparity in sentencing. The challenge that lies ahead, therefore, is to see if the legal system can accommodate the judiciary's new found discretion without slipping back into a system where a sentence might turn on race, socio-economic status, or the happenstance of which judge is assigned to the case. In short, while Shakespeare beautifully captured mercy's allure when he penned Portia's famous lines, The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, it turns out that giving voice to mercy in the nitty-gritty of a courtroom sentencing is surprisingly difficult. This Article uses the sentencing of Lewis Scooter Libby to explore the potential difficulties that lie ahead in a post-Booker world. Libby, who was Vice President Cheney's chief-of-staff, was tried and convicted for crimes coming out of his role in revealing that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. Prior to his sentencing, a number of citizens submitted letters to the judge, some arguing that Libby deserved mercy based on factors like long public service, while others stated that justice demanded the most severe sentence possible. With their refreshingly non-legal perspectives on mercy and justice, these letters offer a rich trove of material for asking what factors warrant leniency. Using the lessons learned from the letters, the Article examines various ways that we might identify what mercy factors should be recognized. The Article concludes by looking at how judges might exercise their discretion to ensure that the virtue of mercy does not become an unintentional vice by allowing inequality and arbitrariness to creep back into sentencing.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation