In Print: Volume 88: Number 2
Kimbrough, Spears and Categorical Rejection: the Latest Additions to the Family of Federal Sentencing Policy Cases
By Sophia A. Vandergrift
88 Wash. U. L. Rev. 475 (2010)
In the past three decades, the federal sentencing system has been in a state of flux. At the core of the debate, and at issue in a great deal of modern cases, is how much discretion federal judges ought to have when sentencing defendants. The amount of discretion committed to judges depends largely on how the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Sentencing Guidelines” or “the Guidelines”) are construed. In Spears v. United States, the Supreme Court sought to clarify the role of the Sentencing Guidelines under the post–United States v. Booker advisory sentencing scheme. Spears held that judges may categorically reject the Guidelines pertaining to powder-to-crack cocaine ratios. In the wake of this holding, significant questions about the role of the Sentencing Guidelines persist. Of particular importance are questions about when judges may categorically reject the Sentencing Guidelines outside of the crack cocaine context.
In order to put the Supreme Court’s recent federal sentencing decisions and the modern debate from which they stem in proper context, this Note will begin, in Part I, with a discussion of the history of federal sentencing, including the pre–Sentencing Guideline era and the origination of the Sentencing Guidelines. This section will also address the various criticisms the Sentencing Guidelines have attracted and how their role has evolved accordingly. Part II will analyze the Spears decision and the associated case law. Part III will examine the way federal district courts are currently construing Spears, with an eye for the meaningful constructive uncertainties such courts are grappling with and on which they are diverging. Finally, in Part IV, this Note will seek to suggest the most fruitful treatment of Spears, concluding that judges should practice categorical rejection only in limited circumstances and that sentencing opinions should accompany all instances of categorical rejection.
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