WASHINGTON (CN) – A drug dealer’s sentencing challenge brought embattled Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before the Supreme Court for the first time on Monday.
Though he has spent the better part of the last year overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Rosenstein argued before the justices this morning in connection to the case of of Adaucto Chavez-Meza, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to a methamphetamine-trafficking scheme.
Though a federal judge initially handed down a 135-month sentence, which was at the lowest end of the guidelines range in effect at the time, Chavez-Meza requested modification of his sentence when the guidelines changed a year later.
Chavez-Meza’s sentence was reduced to 114 months but he was left guessing why the judge this time did not go to the lowest end of the new spectrum, 108 months.
With the judge having left blank a section for additional comments, the only record explaining the new sentence was a form that said the judge complied with federal law in considering certain factors when crafting the sentence.
The 10th Circuit likewise was silent in upholding the sentence, saying judges need not explain how they weighed the various factors they considered in crafting their sentences.
Rosenstein urged the Supreme Court to affirm, arguing that judges are afforded deference when they check a box saying they considered all the necessary factors.
“The form reflects what the district court is required to do by statute,” Rosenstein said. “And so there’s no reason to presume here that the court is checking a box and not actually doing what’s required.”
Insisting that the decision is more involved than “merely a matter of checking a box,” Rosenstein said: “The court is actually making a conscious decision about what sentence to impose within that new guideline range.”
Coberly & Martinez attorney Todd Coberly argued for Chavez-Meza meanwhile that the lack of full explanations makes it impossible to determine if judges are actually considering the factors they are required to weigh.
Coberly said “a few words” would suffice, and that the result would give the public more faith that judges are acting appropriately.
“Judicial discretion is not a whim,” Coberly said. “It is to be guided by sound legal principles and subject to meaningful appellate review. And if appellate review for abuse of discretion is to mean anything, it is axiomatic that there must be a reason for the district court’s decision apparent in the record.”
But the justices struggled to see how Coberly’s proposal could develop into a workable requirement that would clearly explain what judges need to do when resentencing a defendant.
“I’m afraid that … you’re creating a rule that makes it impossible for district court judges to do anything but what you want,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor also questioned Rosenstein at the hearing about the possibility of a judge deciding on a new sentence out of animus toward a specific racial group.
“If we don’t have any statement by the judge of what he or she is doing or some basic reference to why, how do we know?” Sotomayor asked.
Later Sotomayor suggested instead that appeals courts should decide for themselves what information they need from judges in resentencing cases.
“One thing I hate about absolute rules in this area, dislike intensely, is that why shouldn’t we trust the court of appeals to determine how much information it needs or doesn’t need to give meaningful appellate review?” Sotomayor asked.