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.

Is the Trump Travel Ban Still Moot? Why the Broader Issue of Executive Power is at Stake.

On December 8, 2015, then candidate Donald Trump called for what colloquially became known to some as a “Muslim ban.” Fast forward almost a full year later to January 27, 2017, when President Trump issued an executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The order placed a temporary ban on immigration from seven countries that had been deemed to be terror prone by the Obama Administration. Almost immediately, an injunction was ordered barring the enforcement of the order.

In response, President Trump issued a “watered down” travel ban” on March 6, 2017. The new travel ban was less restrictive than the first ban, allowing immigration from Iraq, and containing an exemption for green card holders and people with permanent residency who were entering the U.S. from any of the other six countries. Despite the revision, the order was challenged in multiple lower courts, and eventually appeals were heard in both the Fourth and Ninth Circuits. Both courts ruled against allowing the “watered down” travel ban to go into effect.

The Supreme Court:

On June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeals of those cases during its fall term. Most notably, they lifted the stays that the lower courts had placed on the travel ban, thereby allowing it to go into effect “with respect to foreign nationals who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Though a minor legal debate over the scope of the phrase “bona fide relationship” ensued, the decision to lift the stay until the Court heard the case at least signaled to some that the Court was likely to side with President Trump’s assertion of executive power.

 The Split

Though both the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against President Trump’s travel ban, each court differed in its reasoning. The Fourth Circuit’s decision was based on the premise that President Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign was evidence of his “anti-Muslim sentiment.” The decision went on to say that such discrimination in the form of an executive order violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision to stay the ban was based on statutory grounds. They held that President Trump’s Executive Order violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA requires that a President provide reasoning for his or her decision to restrict immigration from certain countries, and the Ninth Circuit held that President Trump failed to provide such support for his order.

Looking Forward and why the Circuit Split Matters:

Recently, the Supreme Court removed the appeals of both of the above cases from its oral arguments calendar for the fall over the question of whether the issue was still moot. In light of both of the lower court decisions, President Trump issued a third travel ban, which added more countries to the list that bans entry and provided a much stronger rationale for the ban after citing an inter-agency review. Though there will likely still be grounds to challenge the new order, it is entirely possible that the Court will not find those new challenges persuasive and thus leave its decision to lift the stay in place.

If this were to happen, it would set up an interesting legal question over what to do with the lower court decisions. The Trump Administration will likely want the lower court decisions vacated because they restrict his authority. In particular, since the Fourth Circuit’s decision was based on constitutional grounds, it is the decision that has a far greater impact on the scope of executive power in the United States. Therefore, what the justices decide to do with the mootness issue and consequently the lower court decisions will play an important role in understanding how the justices view the scope of Trump’s executive power.