Competing Branches: Judicial Scrutiny and Presidential Commutation of Prison Sentences

Background

Presidential commutation, or reduction, of prison sentences is a well-established power of the executive branch. Article II of the United States Constitution gives the President the “power to grant Reprieves and Pardons” for criminal offenses against the United States. U.S. Const. art. II, §2. However, the implications of such an action on the judiciary’s subsequent ability to grant a writ of habeas corpus are yet to be determined.

A writ of habeas corpus permits an inmate to have his or her case reviewed by a court to determine whether the imprisonment is lawful. If there have been changes in law relevant to the case, or if for any number of reasons, the inmate believes the original sentence may no longer hold, he or she may ask that a court hear the claim. Relatedly, Article III of the Constitution provides an important constraint on the authority of the judiciary, declaring that courts cannot hear a moot issue. In other words, the conflict before the court has to be one that is “live,” or where the parties still have a “cognizable interest in the outcome.”

The Issue

The question, then, is what happens once a prisoner’s sentence has been reduced by presidential commutation?

1.         Does any appeal by the affected inmate for review become moot, divesting the judiciary of its power to grant writs of habeas corpus?

2.         Does the judiciary still have the authority to review that case, or has it been transformed from a judicial sentence to an executive one?

The Split

In recent years, cases before the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have raised these exact questions. The circuit courts are split, with the Fourth Circuit taking a seemingly narrow view of its jurisdictional scope, while the Sixth Circuit applies its authority more broadly.

In United States v. Surratt (2017), the Fourth Circuit held that presidential commutation — in this case, shortening a sentence for crack cocaine possession from life to 20 years — divested the court entirely of its power to review the case. Though the ruling features only a two-sentence opinion, the concurring opinion explains the logical merits. It states, “absent some constitutional infirmity in the commutation order, which is not present here, we may not readjust or rescind what the President, in the exercise of his pardon power, has done.” It asserts that the nature of the sentence has been transformed by the action, and that the prisoner is no longer serving a judicially imposed sentence, but a presidentially commuted one — to interfere with that would be to act outside of the court’s jurisdictional purview. In the court’s view, the inmate had accepted the offer made by the President, which created finality in the decision, thus precluding the court from further intervention.

Deviating from this opinion, in Dennis v. Terris (2019), the Sixth Circuit found that such an exercise of presidential power does not take away from the judiciary’s authority to grant a writ of habeas corpus. The court acknowledged the executive’s power, but refused to accept the position that the “altered sentence becomes an executive sentence in full, free from judicial scrutiny with respect to mistakes the courts may have made.” In this view, there is no overlap between the power exercised by the executive and the authority the court is asked to assert. Here, the question is not whether the commutation should be amended, but rather whether the original sentence itself would hold up under scrutiny and application of modern law. The argument made by this court is that a commutation or pardon by the President does not change the nature of or eliminate the original sentence. Say, for example, an inmate’s sentence is commuted with the added condition that the inmate maintain good behavior. If that condition is not met, the commutation is revoked and the original sentence takes effect once again. The original sentence remains in place all along, “ready to kick into full effect if the recipient violates the conditional cap.” Likewise, the sentence is, all along, subject to be amended by the court system that imposed it. Moreover, the court argues that a commuted sentence is, on principle, not rendered moot. Commutation does not take away any interest the inmate has in seeking relief for the remainder of his or her sentence. If a court were to find the inmate’s sentence unlawful, then the original sentence would simply go away. In other words, the conflict is still “live,” giving the court jurisdiction to revise and reevaluate the legality of its own past decisions.

Looking Forward

The power of a President to shorten or forgive the sentences of prisoners is an exercise in fairness that dates back to the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and has played a role in the criminal justice system ever since. This current split reveals a fundamental difference in how the courts view their roles as part of the judiciary. Whether or not an overlap between branches of government is formed by an executive action is a question of constitutional interpretation that carries serious consequences for how justice will be carried out across the United States in the future.