Determining ‘Reasonableness’ Without a Reason? Federal Appellate Review Post-Rita v. United States
32 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2010 Last revised: 21 Sep 2012
Date Written: 2008
The U.S. Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA) in response to increasing concern over unwarranted sentencing disparities in federal courts, thus creating the first real opportunity for the federal judiciary to develop a common law of sentencing. The SRA established the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and the Commission designed the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The Guidelines consisted of a set of mandatory narrow sentencing ranges for each defendant in which judges were permitted to impose sentences based on a defendant’s prior criminal history, the severity of the crime, and specific offense characteristics. Eighteen years after the Guidelines took effect, in United States v. Booker, the Court concluded that the Guidelines must be deemed advisory and the federal courts of appeals should review criminal sentences for “reasonableness.” Unfortunately, the Court did not clearly define what reasonableness review would entail. This ambiguity quickly resulted in a split among the circuits as to how to determine the reasonableness of a sentence. Two years later, in Rita v. United States, the Court attempted to clarify how the federal appellate courts should conduct post-Booker appellate review and also explained that, depending on the particular circumstances, a brief statement by the trial judge of the reasons for a particular sentence, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c), was legally sufficient. Almost immediately after the Rita ruling, the circuits were split again over the level of specificity required for a judge’s statement of reasons. This article explores the federal circuits’ conflicting readings of United States v. Booker and Rita v. United States with respect to the adequacy of judges’ sentencing explanations. The article argues that many federal trial courts are violating Congress’s directive to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities and provide greater transparency through explicit and thoroughly reasoned sentencing explanations. A sentence is procedurally reasonable only when the appellate court can follow, recreate, and assess the district court’s basis for the sentence. Not only is this conclusion supported by Booker and Rita’s emphasis on the importance of thoroughly reasoned sentencing opinions for the evolution of the now-advisory Guidelines, but also by the SRA’s focus on increased transparency and rationality in the sentencing process.
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