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The Sixth Circuit Reverses, Taking Care Not to Hurt The Feelings Of The District Court

How should we think about seeing a sentenced reversed? Is it a statement about the quality of the district court judge? To be sure, a United States district judge will not pop the champagne on hearing she’s been reversed. But, ultimately, should we think that the appeals court is commenting on the ability of the district court judge when it sends the district court’s work back for a do-over?

I tend to think we shouldn’t. It appeals the Sixth Circuit disagrees with me in United States v. Priester. (For Sentencing Law & Policy coverage, go here.)

Mr. Priester entered a guilty plea to a number of drug charges, including crack distribution. His lawyer argued that the judge should reject the guidelines because they reflect a policy decision that crack cocaine is worse than powder cocaine. The district court judge, on the Sixth Circuit’s reading of the transcript, said he didn’t think he had the power to reject sentencing guidelines.

As it happens, the district judge was wrong. After the sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Spears v. United States, that a district court judge does have the authority to disagree with the decision reflected in the sentencing guidelines about how bad crack cocaine is.

In essence, the district court judge in Priester thought the law was one way. The Supreme Court later said it was another.

The Sixth Circuit goes out of its way to say just how awful it feels that the district court is being reversed here. The court starts the opinion by noting that “[i]n some cases we hold the district court to a standard we would dislike imposing on ourselves.” The court later says that it is vacating Priester’s sentence “on the admittedly unfair ground of insufficient clairvoyance.”

Is there any argument that fairness to the district court is a proper ground to consider in a decision?

One can appreciate the social dynamics at play in a reversal – circuit court judges see district court judges in a number of fora. The circuit court wants to send a message to the district court that the reversal is not a reflection on the district court’s work or value as a judge. But surely that sentiment is better expressed in something published by Hallmark than in a federal reporter.

Of course, a lawyer does not transform into a district judge by being sloppy about his or her work. A district judge is never going to want a court of appeals to say they got it wrong.

Yet courts of appeals do not exist to validate district judges. If anything, courts of appeals exist to give people a sense that a fresh, unbiased, triple set of eyes will look at each case. If the circuit court goes out of its way to assure the parties and the bar that its worried about how a reversal will effect the district court judge, as opposed to the man sentenced to fifteen years in prison, it threatens to undermine our collective confidence in these courts as that detached second look.

A contrary perspective, in a slightly different context, was recently given by Judge Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit. As the ABA Journal put it, the Ninth Circuit “took another beating” by the Supreme Court last term. Judge Reinhardt was sanguine about his role in relation to that reversal rate,

“If anything, it’s a compliment. I get treated like the others on the [Supreme] Court,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “If you follow the law the way it is, before they change it, you’re going to get reversed.”


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