488 U.S. 361 (1989), 87-7028, Mistretta v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 87-7028
Citation:488 U.S. 361, 109 S.Ct. 647, 102 L.Ed.2d 714, 57 U.S.L.W. 4102
Party Name:Mistretta v. United States
Case Date:January 18, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 361

488 U.S. 361 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 647, 102 L.Ed.2d 714, 57 U.S.L.W. 4102



United States

No. 87-7028

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 18, 1989

Argued October 5, 1988




Because the existing indeterminate sentencing system resulted in serious disparities among the sentences imposed by federal judges upon similarly situated offenders and in uncertainty as to an offender's actual date of release by Executive Branch parole officials, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (Act), which, inter alia, created the United States Sentencing Commission as an independent body in the Judicial Branch with power to promulgate binding sentencing guidelines establishing a range of determinate sentences for all categories of federal offenses and defendants according to specific and detailed factors. After the District Court upheld the constitutionality of the Commission's resulting Guidelines against claims by petitioner Mistretta, who was under indictment on three counts centering in a cocaine sale, that the Commission was constituted in violation of the separation-of-powers principle, and that Congress had delegated excessive authority to the Commission to structure the Guidelines, Mistretta pleaded guilty to a conspiracy-to-distribute count, was sentenced under the Guidelines to 18 months' imprisonment and other penalties, and filed a notice of appeal. This Court granted his petition and that of the United States for certiorari before judgment in the Court of Appeals in order to consider the. Guidelines' constitutionality.

Held: The Sentencing Guidelines are constitutional, since Congress neither (1) delegated excessive legislative power to the Commission nor (2) violated the separation-of-powers principle by placing the Commission in the Judicial Branch, by requiring federal judges to serve on the Commission and to share their authority with nonjudges, or by empowering the President to appoint Commission members and to remove them for cause. The Constitution's structural protections do not prohibit Congress from delegating to an expert body within the Judicial Branch the intricate task of formulating sentencing guidelines consistent with such significant statutory direction as is present here, nor from calling upon the accumulated wisdom and experience of the Judicial Branch in creating policy on a matter uniquely within the ken of judges. Pp. 371-412.

682 F.Supp. 1033, affirmed.

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BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, and in all but n. 11 of which BRENNAN, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 413.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

[109 S.Ct. 650] JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this litigation, we granted certiorari before judgment in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in order to consider the constitutionality of the Sentencing Guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission. The Commission is a body created under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (Act), as amended, 18 U.S.C. § 3551 et seq. (1982 ed., Supp. IV), and 28 U.S.C. §§ 991-998 (1982 ed., Supp. IV).1 The United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri ruled that the Guidelines

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were constitutional. United States v. Johnson, 682 F.Supp. 1033 (1988).2




For almost a century, the Federal Government employed in criminal cases a system of indeterminate sentencing. Statutes specified the penalties for crimes, but nearly always gave the sentencing judge wide discretion to decide whether the offender should be incarcerated and for how long, whether restraint, such as probation, should be imposed instead of imprisonment or fine. This indeterminate sentencing system was supplemented by the utilization of parole, by which an offender was returned to society under the "guidance and control" of a parole officer. See Zerbst v. Kidwell, 304 U.S. 359, 363 (1938).

Both indeterminate sentencing and parole were based on concepts of the offender's possible, indeed probable, rehabilitation, a view that it was realistic to attempt to rehabilitate the inmate, and thereby to minimize the risk that he would resume criminal activity upon his return to society. It obviously required the judge and the parole officer to make their respective sentencing and release decisions upon their own assessments of the offender's amenability to rehabilitation. As a result, the court and the officer were in positions to exercise, and usually did exercise, very broad discretion. See Kadish, The Advocate and the Expert -- Counsel in the Pen-Correctional Process, 45 Minn.L.Rev. 803, 812-813 (1961).

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This led almost inevitably to the conclusion on the part of a reviewing court that the sentencing judge "sees more and senses more" than the appellate court; thus, the judge enjoyed the "superiority of his nether position," for that court's determination as to what sentence was appropriate met with virtually unconditional deference on appeal. See Rosenberg, Judicial Discretion of the Trial Court, Viewed From Above, 22 Syracuse L.Rev. 635, 663 (1971). See Dorszynski v. United States, 418 U.S. 424, 431 (1974). The decision whether to parole was also "predictive and discretionary." Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 480 (1972). The correction official possessed almost absolute discretion over the parole decision. See, e.g., Brest v. Ciccone, 371 F.2d 981, 982-983 (CA8 1967); Rifai v. United States Parole Comm'n, 586 F.2d 695 (CA9 1978).

Historically, federal sentencing -- the function of determining the scope and extent of punishment -- never has been thought to be assigned by the Constitution to the exclusive jurisdiction of any one of the three Branches of Government. Congress, [109 S.Ct. 651] of course, has the power to fix the sentence for a federal crime, United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76 (1820), and the scope of judicial discretion with respect to a sentence is subject to congressional control. Ex parte United States, 242 U.S. 27 (1916). Congress early abandoned fixed sentence rigidity, however, and put in place a system of ranges within which the sentencer could choose the precise punishment. See United States v. Grayson, 438 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1978). Congress delegated almost unfettered discretion to the sentencing judge to determine what the sentence should be within the customarily wide range so selected. This broad discretion was further enhanced by the power later granted the judge to suspend the sentence and by the resulting growth of an elaborate probation system. Also, with the advent of parole, Congress moved toward a "three-way sharing" of sentencing responsibility by granting corrections personnel in the Executive Branch the discretion

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to release a prisoner before the expiration of the sentence imposed by the judge. Thus, under the indeterminate sentence system, Congress defined the maximum, the judge imposed a sentence within the statutory range (which he usually could replace with probation), and the Executive Branch's parole official eventually determined the actual duration of imprisonment. See Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 248 (1949). See also Geraghty v. United States Parole Comm'n, 719 F.2d 1199, 1211 (CA3 1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1103 (1984); United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 190 (1979); United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 443 (1965) ("[I]f a given policy can be implemented only by a combination of legislative enactment, judicial application, and executive implementation, no man or group of men will be able to impose its unchecked will").

Serious disparities in sentences, however, were common. Rehabilitation, as a sound penological theory, came to be questioned and, in any event, was regarded by some as an unattainable goal for most cases. See N. Morris, The Future of Imprisonment 24-43 (1974); F. Allen, The Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal (1981). In 1958, Congress authorized the creation of judicial sentencing institutes and joint councils, see 28 U.S.C. § 334, to formulate standards and criteria for sentencing. In 1973, the United States Parole Board adopted guidelines that established a "customary range" of confinement. See United States Parole Comm'n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388, 391 (1980). Congress in 1976 endorsed this initiative through the Parole Commission and Reorganization Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 4201-4218, an attempt to envision for the Parole Commission a role, at least in part, "to moderate the disparities in the sentencing practices of individual judges." United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. at 189. That Act, however, did not disturb the division of sentencing responsibility among the three Branches. The judge continued to exercise discretion and to set the sentence within the statutory range fixed by Congress, while the prisoner's

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actual release date generally was set by the Parole Commission.

This proved to be no more than a waystation. Fundamental and widespread dissatisfaction with the uncertainties and the disparities continued to be expressed. Congress had wrestled with the problem for more than a decade when, in 1984, it enacted the sweeping reforms that are at issue here.

Helpful in our consideration and analysis of the statute is the Senate Report on the 1984 legislation, S.Rep. No. 98-225 (1983) (Report).3 The Report referred to the "outmoded rehabilitation model" for federal criminal [109 S.Ct. 652] sentencing, and recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed. Id. at 38. It observed that the indeterminate sentencing system had two "unjustifi[ed]" and "shameful" consequences. Id. at 38, 65. The first was the great variation among...

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