Finally, A True Elements Test: Mathis v. U.S. and the Categorical Approach

30 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2016 Last revised: 19 Oct 2017

See all articles by Rebecca Sharpless

Rebecca Sharpless

University of Miami - School of Law

Date Written: February 8, 2017


The fate of defendants facing lengthy federal sentence enhancements often turns on what the U.S. Supreme Court calls the categorical approach. The approach controls whether a federal defendant might face an additional decade or longer in prison based solely on having prior convictions of a certain type. At a time when many question the wisdom of mass incarceration, the Court has taken great care to delimit the circumstances in which a federal sentencing judge can lengthen sentences based on recidivism. The categorical approach also governs most immigration cases involving deportation for a crime. As Congress has cut back deportation defenses for lawful permanent residents with criminal records, the Court has demanded that convictions used for deportation strictly correspond to a federal removal ground.

In both Descamps v. U.S. and Mathis v. U.S., recent Armed Career Criminal Act opinions authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court interpreted the categorical approach as requiring a true elements test, declaring that at least two decades of the Court’s precedent required this result. Yet, Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg, two justices who had been in the majority in Descamps, dissented in Mathis. This article analyzes the trajectory of the Court’s principal categorical approach decisions, using the Mathis dissent authored by Justice Breyer and joined by Justice Ginsburg, to explain an ambiguity in the Court’s jurisprudence that the discussion of means and elements in Descamps and Mathis has now settled. Justice Kagan’s penchant for oversimplification has led her not only to overstate the relationship between the Court’s early and late categorical approach decisions but to include a discussion in Mathis that leaves room for confusion about how to apply the categorical approach in practice. The dicta suggest that adjudicators can take a "peek at" the record of conviction to help determine whether state law has defined a fact as a means or element. This article argues that Descamps and Mathis, when properly interpreted, require the categorical approach to operate like a true elements test and that the take a "peek” dicta in Mathis is inconsistent with the case’s holding.

Keywords: federal sentencing, recidivism, Armed Career Criminal Act, categorical approach, Mathis, Descamps, ACCA, removal, deportation, immigration, Kagan, Breyer, elements test, element, Apprendi, constitutional avoidance, Supreme Court, criminal procedure

Suggested Citation

Sharpless, Rebecca A., Finally, A True Elements Test: Mathis v. U.S. and the Categorical Approach (February 8, 2017). Brooklyn Law Review, Vol. 8, p. 1275, 2017, Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca A. Sharpless (Contact Author)

University of Miami - School of Law ( email )

1311 Miller Drive
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States

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