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.