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.

The Tapia Tap Dance: When Does Considering Rehabilitation in Imposing a Sentence Violate Tapia?

BACKGROUND

In 1984, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, as part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. The Act, among other things, abolished federal parole in all but a few instances and created the United States Sentencing Commission. It also required courts to consider the factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)—which include the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the defendant, the justification for the sentence, the kinds of available sentences, any relevant policies promulgated by the Sentencing Commission, the need for consistency, and the value of any potential restitution to victims.

However, §3582 of the Act went one step further. In a nod to concerns about excessive prison sentences imposed during the height of the War on Drugs, it provided that the above factors should be considered while also “recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” In Tapia v. United States (2011), the Supreme Court interpreted that provision of the Act to mean that “the Sentencing Reform Act precludes federal courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term in order to promote a criminal defendant’s rehabilitation.”

THE ISSUE

What is the standard for determining when a sentencing court violates Tapia? When a court considers rehabilitation in imposing a sentence at all, does it violate Tapia? Or is Tapia only violated when a sentencing court uses rehabilitation as the determining factor?

THE SPLIT

As it turns out, every Circuit in the country—save for the D.C. Circuit—has taken a position on this issue. They’re divided into two camps.

The Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits apply an easy-to-satisfy standard: they hold that Tapia is violated when the sentencing judge even considers rehabilitation or bases his sentence even in part on rehabilitation. As articulated by the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Thornton (2017), for example, “A rule requiring reversal only when rehabilitation is the sole motivation would not make sense. The federal sentencing statute mandates that judges consider other factors. . . . Therefore, there will almost always be some valid reasons advanced by the district court for imposing the sentence issued.” The Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Vandergrift (2014) arrived at the same conclusion, and based its analysis on an interpretation “faithful to Tapia’s reasoning.” It noted that the Supreme Court held that sentencing courts “‘should consider the specified rationales of punishment except for rehabilitation’” when “determining whether to impose or lengthen a sentence of imprisonment.” Accordingly, any consideration of rehabilitation is improper.

The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits come out differently. For a sentencing court to run afoul of Tapia, they require a demonstration that rehabilitation was the determining factor in the sentencing court’s decision to impose or enhance a sentence in order to find a Tapia violation. They, too, base their rationale in the Supreme Court’s language in Tapia. For example, in United States v. Garza (2018), the Fifth Circuit noted:

in Tapia the Court made clear that “[a] court commits no error by discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison or the benefits of specific treatment or training programs.” A district court also may legitimately “urge the [Bureau of Prisons] to place an offender in a prison treatment program.” However, when the district court’s concern for rehabilitative needs goes further—when the sentencing record discloses “that the court may have calculated the length of [the defendant’s] sentence to ensure that she receive certain rehabilitative services”—§ 3582(a) has been violated.

Similarly, in United States v. Bennett (2012), the Fourth Circuit focused on looking at the specific error that the Supreme Court was attempting to remedy in Tapia. To glean the Supreme Court’s meaning, it looked at the sentencing court’s proceedings in Tapia and observed that the district court judge said that the “‘number one’ consideration ‘[was] the need to provide treatment.’” It observed that the Tapia decision was a “close question . . . whether the rehabilitation rationale drove the sentencing decision,” despite the sentencing court’s brazen discussion of rehabilitation. Accordingly, the Court couldn’t possibly mean that a district court judge’s mere discussion of rehabilitation ran afoul of Tapia.

The Third Circuit, which arrived at a conclusion on the proper interpretation of Tapia only ten days ago, articulated a related—but distinct—rationale. It noted in United States v. Schonewolf (2018) that that the first approach, taken by the Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, would “risk a chilling effect on district courts ‘discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison,’ a subject that ‘a court properly may address.’”

LOOKING FORWARD

Given that virtually every Circuit in the country has arrived at a conclusion on the meaning of Tapia—and that those meanings differ and are supported by different rationales—the Supreme Court has a strong incentive to take an appeal from one of these cases to resolve the split. Even more persuasively, the Sentencing Reform Act was intended to promote consistency in sentencing across the country. It’s a cruel twist of irony for the drafters of the Act that it, in turned, spurred even more inconsistency.