U.S. Supreme Court

Sotomayor and Barrett flag Sentencing Commission's longtime lack of a quorum

  • Print

sentencing concept with figurines and gavel

Image from Shutterstock.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has not had a quorum for three full years, which affects its ability to address circuit splits on the application of sentencing guidelines, two U.S. Supreme court justices said in a statement Monday.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the statement regarding cert denial in a case involving the definition of “career offenders.” Her statement was joined by Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, defendants who have two prior felony convictions for a “controlled substance offense” qualify as career offenders, who may face dramatically higher sentencing ranges.

Two federal circuit courts define controlled substance offenses to involve substances listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act. Four other circuit courts look to relevant state law to define controlled substance offenses.

“It is the responsibility of the Sentencing Commission to address this division to ensure fair and uniform application of the guidelines,” Sotomayor wrote.

“I hope in the near future the commission will be able to resume its important function in our criminal justice system,” she added.

The only current active member of the seven-member Sentencing Commission is Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the brother of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, CNN reports.

Congress failed to act on former President Donald Trump’s Sentencing Commission nominees, and President Joe Biden has not yet nominated anyone to the commission, said Douglas A. Berman, a professor at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, in an interview with CNN.

Berman told CNN that Sotomayor has raised issues about sentencing disparities in past cases.

“That Barrett now joins her statement could be a new chapter in the way the court starts looking at these issues,” he said.

On his blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, Berman said he thinks that the commission and the Supreme Court are both responsible to help ensure uniform application of the guidelines.

The case turned down by the court, Guerrant v. United States, involves inmate Thomas Javion Guerrant, who is serving a 10-year prison term as a career offender, Bloomberg Law reports. Guerrant was deemed to be a career offender after his conviction for selling heroin to an undercover informant and for fleeing police.

One of Guerrant’s prior convictions was for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, according to the cert petition. The offense would not have counted as a career offender predicate in circuits that look to the Controlled Substances Act.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.