Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Peer Pressure? Guidelines Presumptively Reasonable in the Sixth Circuit

Today the Sixth Circuit succumbed to peer pressure and held that the guidelines are presumptively reasonable. In today's opinion, United States v. Leonard Williams, -- F.3d --, No. 05-5416 (6th Cir. January 31, 2006), (opinion available here), Judge Cook writing for the panel stated:




Although several of our sister circuits have concluded that any sentence within the applicable Guidelines range garners a presumption of reasonableness, this court has yet to articulate what weight should be accorded the Guidelines relative to the other sentencing factors listed in § 3553(a). See United States v. Webb, 403 F.3d 373, 385 n.9 (6th Cir. 2005) (declining "to indicate what weight the district courts must give to the appropriate Guidelines range, or any other § 3553(a) factor"); see also id. at 385 (Kennedy, J., dissenting). We now join several sister circuits in crediting sentences properly calculated under the Guidelines with a rebuttable presumption of reasonableness. Such a presumption comports with the Supreme Court’s remedial decision in Booker. See United States v. Booker, 125 S. Ct. 738, 757 (2005) (holding that the modified Federal Sentencing Act "requires a sentencing court to consider Guidelines ranges, but . . . permits the court to tailor the sentence in light of other statutory concerns as well" (citation omitted)).

Judge Cook went on to illustrate that this presumption shifts the burden to the defendant to prove that the guideline sentence is unreasonable. The last line of the opinion sums it up:

In the absence of a showing that the district court imposed an “unreasonable” sentence, we affirm.
What is notable about the adoption of the rebuttable presumption standard in this case is the total lack of any real legal reasoning and a passing reference to Booker as support for shifting the burden to the defendant to show that a guideline sentence is unreasonable. One might argue that to shift the burden to the defendant to show that a guideline sentence is unreasonable is nothing more than another way of approving of a mandatory guideline regime, which, Booker clearly prohibits.

Update:

February 1, 2006, 11:55 a.m. CST

One of my esteemed colleagues, Sumter Camp, added some comments to my post and I thought they were important enough to place in the post itself so that everyone could benefit. Sumter wrote:


This opinion is contrary to a number of other Sixth Circuit
cases defining either the standard of review or the procedure the Court will use to review for reasonableness. See, e.g. Webb, 403 F.3d 373, 385 fn 9 (6th Cir. 7/19/05), which states, "we also decline to hold that a sentence within a proper Guidelines range is per-se reasonable. Such a per-se test is not only inconsistent with the meaning of 'reasonableness’, (cite omitted), but is also inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker, as such a standard ‘would effectively re-institute mandatory adherence to the Guidelines.’"; See, also, the description of appellate review in United States v. McBride, __ F.3d __, 2006 WL 89159 (6th Cir. 1/17/06), e.g., "A district court’s failure to explicitly consider the section 3553(a) factors without other evidence in the record demonstrating that they were thoroughly considered by the district court would result in a procedurally unreasonable sentencing determination requiring us to vacate and remand for resentencing." Slip Op. 4, fn. 3. The court in Williams goes out of its way to reach an issue that should have been precluded by the Circuit's rule prohibiting one panel from over-ruling another panel's decision. Hopefully, Williams will ask for rehearing and/or rehearing en banc given that the Circuit's law was clear before this opinion, but has now been muddied.

Thanks Sumter!

Note: Mr. Williams is represented by Dianne Smothers, AFPD, Western District of Tennessee, who has assured me that rehearing and/or reahearing en banc will be sought.

11 comments:

Sumter Camp said...

This opinion is contrary to a number of other Sixth Circuit cases defining either the standard of review or the procedure the Court will use to review for reasonableness. See, e.g. Webb, 403 F.3d 373, 385 fn 9 (6th Cir. 7/19/05), which states, “we also decline to hold that a sentence within a proper Guidelines range is per-se reasonable. Such a per-se test is not only inconsistent with the meaning of ‘reasonableness’, (cite omitted), but is also inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker, as such a standard ‘would effectively re-institute mandatory adherence to the Guidelines.’”; See, also, the description of appellate review in United States v. McBride, __ F.3d __, 2006 WL 89159 (6th Cir. 1/17/06), e.g., “A district court’s failure to explicitly consider the section 3553(a) factors without other evidence in the record demonstrating that they were thoroughly considered by the district court would result in a procedurally unreasonable sentencing determination requiring us to vacate and remand for resentencing.” Slip Op. 4, fn. 3. The court in Williams goes out of its way to reach an issue that should have been precluded by the Circuit's rule prohibiting one panel from over-ruling another panel's decision. Hopefully, Williams will ask for rehearing and/or rehearing en banc given that the Circuit's law was clear before this opinion, but has now been muddied.

Dennis Terez said...

The recent opinion in Williams is troubling for all the reasons mentioned in the blog and for other reasons as well. The opinion never explains why the reasoning in Webb was incorrect. More importantly, the Williams panel never takes on the reasoning that Judge Moore put forward in Webb as to why a presumption of reasonableness is bad law. Moreover, when Williams says that it is joining "sister circuits" who have already adopted the presumption of reasonableness, why is there no citation to those sister circuits' opinions? And why no analysis of those opinions? I would hope these issues would find their way in a rehearing brief.

On a broader note, doesn't the Williams conclusion clash with the circuit's precedents regarding Booker and plain error? If the guideline range is presumptively reasonable, then where is the plain error? Also on a broader note, if a properly calculated range is presumptively reasonable, aren't we really going back to mandatory guidelines in practical effect, which is plainly the result that Booker didn't want? Is the implication then that a sentence outside the guideline range is presumptively unreasonable? By the very holding in Williams, we now know that a sentence outside the range will be more closely scrutinized than one within the range -- something that is again contrary to what Booker is all about. Nothing in Booker or in sec. 3553(a) says that the guidelines should be weighed so heavily.

My guess is that the Sixth Circuit is being inundated with appeals claiming that the sentence is unreasaonable. I myself have contributed in a small way to that wave. But wasn't it that same court in the Barnett opinion issued less than a year ago that said that all of the re-review needed after Booker would be relatively easy to accomplish? It strikes me that the legal standard needn't be changed to deal with the presumably large increase in filings in Cincinnati. (AFPD, NDOH)

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