Johnson v. United States and the Future of the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine
9 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2015 Last revised: 22 Sep 2015
Date Written: September 21, 2015
Last Term, in Johnson v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague. The Johnson opinion is certain to have a large impact on federal criminal defendants charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm. But it is also likely to have other important consequences. The language deemed vague in Johnson is similar or identical to language in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and other statutes. What is more, the Johnson opinion elaborates on the void-for-vagueness doctrine in important ways. Those elaborations ought to make vagueness challenges easier to win in the future.
This Commentary examines the implications of Johnson. It also briefly discusses Justice Thomas’s concurrence. Justice Thomas refused to join the majority opinion, instead opting to decide the case in Johnson’s favor on statutory construction grounds. In addition to his statutory construction analysis, Justice Thomas questioned the constitutional basis of the void-for-vagueness doctrine. Justice Thomas’s approach to the vagueness doctrine, if adopted by other members of the Court, could eviscerate the notice function of the doctrine.
Keywords: vagueness, Due Process, Supreme Court
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