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Mistretta v. United States


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488 U.S. 361 (1989), argued 5 Oct. 1988, decided 18 Jan. 1989 by vote of 8 to 1; Blackmun for the Court, Scalia in dissent. Federal judges have traditionally exercised considerable discretion in fixing the terms of sentences for convicted offenders. Convinced of a need for more uniformity in sentencing practices, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, creating the United States Sentencing Commission and giving it authority to establish ranges of sentences for all categories of federal offenses. The commission was established as an independent body within the judicial branch to consist of seven members appointed by the president and removable by him. At least three were required to be federal judges, selected by the president from a list of six judges recommended by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

This statutory challenge to judicial autonomy, plus the unusual provisions for appointment and removal of commission members, raised separation of powers issues. However, in Mistretta the Supreme Court upheld the sentencing law in all respects. Though admitting that the commission was “an unusual hybrid in structure and authority,” Justice Harry A. Blackmun ruled that locating the commission within the judicial branch did not violate the separation of powers doctrine (p. 412). The commission was not a court nor controlled by the judiciary. Requiring three federal judges to serve on the commission along with non-judges did not affect the integrity or independence of the judicial branch. Giving the president power to remove commission members had no effect on the tenure or compensation of Article III judges. The development of sentencing rules was an “essentially neutral endeavor” in which judicial participation was “peculiarly appropriate” (p. 407).

Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting, challenged the constitutionality of the commission. He concluded that it was a violation of Article III of the Constitution to have federal judges serve in policy-making positions in the executive branch.

C. Herman Pritchett

Subjects: Law.


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