The announcement this week by U.S. District Judge John S. Martin of the Southern District of New York that he would leave the bench because he was fed up with Congressional meddling in federal sentencing decisions highlights growing judicial resentment at the blurring of the separation of powers.
The founders of these United States established an independent federal judiciary with the intent that it would temper the excesses of the executive and legislative branches of government. In recent years, however, Congress has sought to restrict the ability of federal judges to make decisions based on law and reason.
Federal laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, for using a gun in relation to various drug or violent crimes, and for numerous other offenses. Judges have for a number of years argued that adhering to sentencing mandates limits their ability to employ legal knowledge and discretion in determining appropriate punishments for men and women who have been convicted of crimes.
Federal jurists have become increasing agitated over Congressional mandates regarding sentencing, which Supreme Court Justice David Souter says jurists fear will make them “instruments of injustice.”
But Congress has continued to move in recent years to increase the injustice by forcing judges to accept mandatory minimum sentence but to strictly obey federal sentencing guidelines. While judges were departing from the sentencing guidelines only in about 18 percent of cases, conservatives in Congress this year attacking even that level of discretion. The House and Senate passed legislation dictating to federal judges what sentences must be imposed. That legislation was criticized by jurists and legal scholars as a dramatic erosion of the lines of separation between the branches of government; and as a power grab by Congress.
Even conservative jurists such as Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained, but the legislation passed and was signed April 30 by President Bush. That’s when Martin says he made his decision to quit.
“Congress is mandating things simply because they want to show how tough they are on crime, with no sense of whether this makes sense or is meaningful,” explained Martin, who said he particularly objects to the removal of judicial discretion in cases where non-violent criminals face harsh sentences if convicted.
Martin argued that adherence to strict sentencing guidelines has led to the packing of federal prisons with people — such as low-level drug dealers — who simply should not be serving sentences of 30, 40, 50 or more years.
“Sentences should be just. We shouldn’t be putting everybody in jail for the rest of their life,” the 68-year-old judge complained.
In an opinion column that appeared this week in The New York Times, Martin said he was concerned about pay scales for federal judgeships, which he noted are now lower than for second year associates in top law firms. But, he argued, “While I might have stayed on despite the inadequate pay, I no longer want to be part of our unjust criminal justice system.”
Appointed to the federal judiciary in 1990 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Martin is one of many jurists from across the political spectrum who have objected to Congressional-mandated minumum sentences and to pressure to obey sentencing guidelines. A 1996 survey of more that 700 federal jurists by the Federal Judicial Center found that almost 70 percent of those questioned objected to mandatory sentencing.
The following year, in testimony before a U.S. House committee, two Supreme Court justices condemned mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes. “I do not think judges should have their sentencing discretion controlled by a mandatory sentence,” declared Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “I don’t not like mandatory sentences,” he said. “I think they can lead to injustice.”
One measure of that injustice is the fact that, according to 2000 testimony given by U.S. Sentencing Commission vice chair John Steer, before the House Governmental Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, African American defendants made up 30 percent of those subject to five-year mandatory sentences in 1999, 43 percent to 10-year mandatory sentences, 60 percent to 20-year mandatory sentences and 80 percent to mandatory life in prison. (To learn more about injustices resulting from mandatory minimum sentence rules and federal sentencing guidelines, and about judicial objections to Congressional pressure on the federal courts, check out the website of the national group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) at www.famm.org)
While Judge Martin is leaving the bench, other jurists who remain are also speaking up.
“As a consequence of the mandatory sentences, we (judges) know that justice is not always done,” explains U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, of the District of Columbia. “(You) cannot dispense equal justice by playing a numbers game. Judgment and discretion and common sense are essential.”
U.S. District Judge Spencer Letts, of the Central District of California, summed up judicial objections when he argued,”Statutory mandatory minimum sentences create injustice because the sentence is determined without looking at the particular defendant,” says “It can make no difference whether he is a lifetime criminal or a first-time offender. Indeed, under this sledgehammer approach, it could make no difference if the day before making this one slip in an otherwise unblemished life the defendant had rescued 15 children from a burning building or had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while defending his country.”