Supreme Court Nixes Sentencing Law as Unconstitutionally Vague

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court eviscerated a sentencing method that hinges on defining violent felonies, siding on Monday with two men convicted of a string of gas station robberies in Texas.

Maurice Davis and Andre Glover had been sentenced to 50 years and 41 years, respectively, under Section 924(c) of Title 18, a residual clause that threatens harsher penalties for those who use guns “in connection with certain other federal crimes.”

Though the Fifth Circuit ruled the clause unconstitutionally vague last year, Davis and Glover balked that the court vacated their convictions and sentences only on one of the two counts at issue.

The Fifth Circuit agreed that the count charging conspiracy as a predicate crime of violence depended on the unconstitutional residual clause, but it preserved the count that charged robbery as a predicate crime of violence.

At oral arguments before the the Supreme Court meanwhile, the government said that Davis and Glover would be entitled to a full resentencing if the justices upheld the ruling against the clause.

The Supreme Court did just that in a 5-4 ruling Monday, remanding for the Fifth Circuit to consider Davis and Glover’s bid for a full resentencing.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Brandon Beck predicted in an interview this morning that the decision will yield “more certainty when we’re convicting criminal defendants of these gun related crimes.”

“It’s a testament to the separation of powers,” Beck said. “Congress gets to pass laws based on policy; the courts get to evaluate the constitutionality of those laws. Here, based on the language congress chose, it was unconstitutional and the court got it right.”

Joined in the majority by the court’s liberal members, Justice Neil Gorsuch referenced two recent cases where the Supreme Court addressed the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act and another law that defines crime of violence.

“The government’s case-specific approach would avoid the vagueness problems that doomed the statutes in Johnson and Dimaya and would not yield to the same practical and Sixth Amendment complications that a case-specific approach under the ACCA and §16 would, but this approach finds no support in §924(c)’s text, context, and history,” Gorusch wrote.

Gorsuch also cited the 1820 case United States v. Wiltberger to note that ambiguity in the breadth of a criminal statute should be decided in the defendant’s favor.

“That rule is ‘perhaps not much less old than’ the task of statutory ‘construction itself,’” Gorsuch wrote. “And much like the vagueness doctrine, it is founded on … the plain principle that the power of punishment is vested in the legislative, not in the judicial department.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the lead opinion in full. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito meanwhile joined a dissent by Justice Brett Kavanaugh which Chief Justice John Roberts largely supported as well.

“A decision to strike down a 33-year-old, often-prosecuted A decision to strike down a 33-year-old, often-prosecuted federal criminal law because it is all of a sudden unconstitutionally vague is an extraordinary event in this court,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The Constitution’s separation of powers authorizes this court to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. That is an awesome power. We exercise that power of judicial review in justiciable cases to, among other things, ensure that Congress acts within constitutional limits and abides by the separation of powers. But when we overstep our role in the name of enforcing limits on Congress, we do not uphold the separation of powers, we transgress the separation of powers.”

Later in the 35-page opinion, Kavanaugh quoted a ruling from the 11th Circuit last year in the case Ovalles v. United States.

“How ‘did we ever reach the point where’ we ‘must debate whether a carjacking in which an assailant struck a 13-year-old girl in the mouth with a baseball bat and a cohort fired an AK–47 at her family is a crime of violence?” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in that case, as quoted by Kavanaugh. “It’s nuts.”

Assistant to the Solicitor General Eric Feign did not respond to a request for comment.

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