Ginsburg Overturns 4th Circuit: Kimbrough v. United States

If you think only published opinions can be scrutinized by the U.S. Supreme Court, you will find this opinion by Justice Ginsburg of interest. The underlying Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion is unpublished but can be found in the Federal Appendix, 174 F. App’x 798. Here, Justice Ginsburg overturns the court below and clears up confusion over sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and other drugs. Tom Michener, graduating in May, wrote the summary of this case.

You can listen to Justice Ginsburg announce the majority opinion (check out the majority opinion jabot she wears in the law library lobby display) here: https://apps.oyez.org/player/#/roberts2/opinion_announcement_audio/22651.

Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007)

Summary:

In 1986, during the Reagan administration’s anti-drug initiative, Congress enacted a federal sentencing policy of punishing crimes involving crack cocaine at a 100-to-1 ratio compared to crimes involving powder cocaine.[1] Using that ratio, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines prescribed the same sentence for a defendant convicted of dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine as they did for a defendant convicted of dealing only five grams of crack cocaine.[2]

In 2004, Defendant Derrick Kimbrough pleaded guilty to various crack and powder cocaine possession offenses. Under the relevant statutes, Kimbrough was subject to 15 years to life in prison. To determine the appropriate sentence within that range, the district court judge used the Guidelines, a formulaic system to determine a sentence in all federal crimes. The Guidelines dictated a range of 19 to 22.5 years in prison due, in part, to the 100-1 ratio.

The judge, however, determined that a sentence in that range would have been “greater than necessary” to accomplish the purposes of sentencing as set out in the sentencing guidelines. The judge also noted that the case exemplified the “disproportionate and unjust effect that crack cocaine guidelines have in sentencing” and sentenced Kimbrough to 15 years, the minimum. In 2006, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, citing circuit precedent which stated that “a sentence that is outside the guidelines range is per se unreasonable when it is based on a disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.” United States v. Kimbrough, 174 F. App’x 798, 799 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing United States v. Eura, 440 F.3d 625 (4th Cir.2006)).

As enacted, the Guidelines were mandatory. In 2005, about three years before Kimbrough and a year before the Court of Appeals’ decision in the case, however, the Court decided United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005). Booker excised the provision of the Guidelines requiring sentencing courts to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range and rendered the Guidelines “effectively advisory.” There remained some ambiguity as to whether the crack/powder disparity adopted in the Guidelines had been rendered advisory by Booker, ambiguity that created disagreement between various courts of appeals. The ambiguity was cleared up by Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg’s majority opinion in Kimbrough.

After reviewing the Government’s various arguments, Justice Ginsburg wrote that none of the arguments “persuades us to hold the crack/powder ratio untouchable by sentencing courts.” She observed that the sentencing judge properly calculated the sentence under the Guidelines and that the judge took note of the criticism by the U.S. Sentencing Commission of the 100-to-1 ratio. She also observed that the judge did not purport to establish a ratio of his own. Rather, the district court “appropriately framed its final determination in line with [a Guideline provision’s] overarching instruction to ‘impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary,’ to accomplish the sentencing goals . . . .”

Thus, the sentence was reasonable, the sentencing judge did not abuse his discretion, and the opinion of the Court of Appeals was reversed.

[1] https://www.oyez.org/cases/2007/06-6330

[2] https://www.oyez.org/cases/2007/06-6330

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