Pubdate: Sat, 03 Jan 2004
Source: Cincinnati Post (OH)
Copyright: 2004 The Cincinnati Post
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


In unusually strong language, Chief Justice William Rehnquist has asked 
Congress to repeal a law it passed last year that restricts judges' 
sentencing discretion. And he was particularly critical of efforts by 
Attorney General John Ashcroft and House Republicans to identify and 
monitor judges who depart from federal sentencing guidelines, a ham-handed 
way of trying to browbeat judges into imposing stricter sentences.

Rehnquist was referring to what has become known as the Feeney Amendment, 
after its sponsor, Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican.

The amendment orders the United States Sentencing Commission to write new 
rules designed to "ensure" that there's a reduction in the number of times 
federal judges hand down sentences in criminal cases that are more lenient 
than called for in federal sentencing guidelines.

But what really sticks in the craw is Congress' additional order to the 
commission to maintain records on each judge's sentencing patterns and send 
those records to the U.S. Attorney General and ultimately the judiciary 
committees in the U.S. House and Senate.

In his year-end report on the judiciary, Rehnquist said the monitoring 
"could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate 
individual judges in the performance of their duties."

He need not have used the conditional. The monitoring is indeed unwarranted 
and ill-considered. We can only hope that no federal judge will be so 

The sentencing restrictions were added to an anti-crime bill last April 
with little discussion or debate. And, said Rehnquist, it happened "without 
any consideration of the views of the judiciary."

Because of the pay, the workload and the onerous confirmation process, 
attracting qualified jurists to the federal bench may soon be a real problem.

It will only be made worse by Congress' weakening their authority and 
conservative ideologues' peering over their shoulders. The law, by 
attempting to enforce rigid adherence to sentencing guidelines, effectively 
puts more sentencing power in the hands of prosecutors, and it also strains 
the quality of official mercy.

Rehnquist is himself a conservative; certainly he's no one's idea of a 
bleeding-heart liberal. And he's backed in his opposition to this law by 
the Judicial Conference, the organization representing the federal judiciary.

At no time did Congress or the Justice Department, which supports the new 
law, ever prove a need for this legislation.

The returning Congress should heed the chief justice's words and the 
judiciary's wishes and repeal the curbs on sentencing.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the 
New York Times he has introduced a bill that would do exactly that. Even 
though Kennedy's is the minority party in the Senate, we hope he is able to 
build bi-partisan support for the repeal.
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