Mistretta v. United States

United States Supreme Court

488 U.S. 361; 109 S.Ct. 647; 102 L.Ed. 2d. 714 (1989)

 

            Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 Congress abolished the system of indeterminate criminal sentencing and parole previously applied in federal cases. Indeterminate sentencing and parole had long been criticized because of wide disparities among similarly situated defendants both in the sentences imposed by judges and in the actual time of imprisonment served prior to release on parole. One of the most controversial provisions of the Sentencing Reform Act called for the establishment of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent body of seven voting members within the judicial branch. All members of the commission were to be appointed by the president, with Senate approval, and were subject to removal by the president for “neglect of duty,” “malfeasance in office,” or “other good cause. . . .” The statute required that at least three members of the sentencing commission be federal judges, chosen from a list of six recommended to the president by the Judicial Conference of the United States. The commission was empowered to promulgate binding sentencing guidelines that federal judges were required to follow. These guidelines prescribed ranges of determinate sentences for all types of federal offenses and defendants, according to detailed specified factors. A federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment against John Mistretta, resulting from his alleged distribution of cocaine. Mistretta moved to have the sentencing guidelines ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that they represented an excessive delegation of authority by Congress and that they violated the principle of separation of powers. The district court denied his motion and upheld the guidelines. Mistretta then agreed to plead guilty to one count of the indictment (conspiracy to distribute) in exchange for the prosecutors’ willingness to dismiss the other two counts. Accepting this negotiated guilty plea, the trial judge applied the sentencing guidelines over Mistretta’s constitutional objections and sentenced him to a prison term of eighteen months. Mistretta filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, but both he and the government later petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, thus obtaining review by the High Court prior to judgment by the court of appeals. The Court’s willingness to grant this expedited review underscored its recognition of the importance of constitutional questions posed by the Sentencing Reform Act.

 

Justice Blackmun delivered the Opinion of the Court.

 

            . . . Petitioner argues that in delegating the power to promulgate sentencing guidelines for every federal criminal offense to an independent Sentencing Commission, Congress has granted the Commission excessive legislative discretion in violation of the constitutionally based nondelegation doctrine. We do not agree.

 

            The nondelegation doctrine is rooted in the principle of separation of powers that underlies our tripartite system of Government. The Constitution provides that “[a]ll legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States,” U.S. Const., Art. I, 1, and we long have insisted that “the integrity and maintenance of the system of government ordained by the Constitution” mandate that Congress generally cannot delegate its legislative power to another Branch. . . .We also have recognized, however, that the separation-of-powers principle, and the nondelegation doctrine in particular, do not prevent Congress from obtaining the assistance of its coordinate Branches. . . .

 

            . . . [O]ur jurisprudence has been driven by a practical understanding that in our increasingly complex society, replete with ever changing and more technical problems, Congress simply cannot do its job absent an ability to delegate power under broad general directives. . . .

 

            . . . In light of our approval of these broad delegations, we harbor no doubt that Congress’ delegation of authority to the Sentencing Commission is sufficiently specific and detailed to meet constitutional requirements. Congress charged the Commission with three goals: to “assure the meeting of the purposes of sentencing as set forth” in the Act; to “provide certainty and fairness in meeting the purposes of sentencing, avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records . . . while maintaining sufficient flexibility to permit individualized sentences,” where appropriate; and to “reflect, to the extent practicable, advancement in knowledge of human behavior as it relates to the criminal justice process.” . . . Congress further specified four “purposes” of sentencing that the Commission must pursue in carrying out its mandate: “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense”; “to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct”; “to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant”; and “to provide the defendant with needed . . . correctional treatment.” . . .

 

            In addition, Congress prescribed the specific tool—the guidelines system—for the Commission to use in regulating sentencing. More particularly, Congress directed the Commission to develop a system of “sentencing ranges” applicable “for each category of offense involving each category of defendant.” . . . Congress instructed the Commission that these sentencing ranges must be consistent with pertinent provisions of Title 18 of the United States Code and could not include sentences in excess of the statutory maxima. Congress also required that for sentences of imprisonment, “the maximum of the range established for such a term shall not exceed the minimum of that range by more than the greater of 25 percent or 6 months, except that, if the minimum term of the range is 30 years or more, the maximum may be life imprisonment.” . . . Moreover, Congress directed the Commission to use current average sentences “as a starting point” for its structuring of the sentencing ranges. . . .

 

            To guide the Commission in its formulation of offense categories, Congress directed it to consider seven factors: the grade of the offense; the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the crime; the nature and degree of the harm caused by the crime; the community view of the gravity of the offense; the public concern generated by the crime; the deterrent effect that a particular sentence may have on others; and the current incidence of the offense. . . .Congress set forth 11 factors for the Commission to consider in establishing categories of defendants. These include the offender’s age, education, vocational skills, mental and emotional condition, physical condition (including drug dependence), previous employment record, family ties and responsibilities, community ties, role in the offense, criminal history, and degree of dependence upon crime for a livelihood. . . .Congress also prohibited the Commission from considering the “race, sex, national origin, creed, and socioeconomic status of offenders,” . . . and instructed that the guidelines should reflect the “general inappropriateness” of considering certain other factors, such as current unemployment, that might serve as proxies for forbidden factors. . . .

 

            In addition to these overarching constraints, Congress provided even more detailed guidance to the Commission about categories of offenses and offender characteristics. Congress directed that guidelines require a term of confinement at or near the statutory maximum for certain crimes of violence and for drug offenses, particularly when committed by recidivists. . . .Congress further directed that the Commission assure a substantial term of imprisonment for an offense constituting a third felony conviction, for a career felon, for one convicted of a managerial role in a racketeering enterprise, for a crime of violence by an offender on release from a prior felony conviction, and for an offense involving a substantial quantity of narcotics. . . .Congress also instructed “that the guidelines reflect . . . the general appropriateness of imposing a term of imprisonment” for a crime of violence that resulted in serious bodily injury. On the other hand, Congress directed that guidelines reflect the general inappropriateness of imposing a sentence of imprisonment “in cases in which the defendant is a first offender who has not been convicted of a crime of violence or an otherwise serious offense.” . . . Congress also enumerated various aggravating and mitigating circumstances, such as, respectively, multiple offenses or substantial assistance to the Government, to be reflected in the guidelines. . . .In other words, although Congress granted the Commission substantial discretion in formulating guidelines, in actuality it legislated a full hierarchy of punishment—from near maximum imprisonment, to substantial imprisonment, to some imprisonment, to alternatives—and stipulated the most important offense and offender characteristics to place defendants within these categories.

 

            We cannot dispute petitioner’s contention that the Commission enjoys significant discretion in formulating guidelines. The Commission does have discretionary authority to determine the relative severity of federal crimes and to assess the relative weight of the offender characteristics that Congress listed for the Commission to consider. . . .The Commission also has significant discretion to determine which crimes have been punished too leniently, and which too severely. . . .Congress has called upon the Commission to exercise its judgment about which types of crimes and which types of criminals are to be considered similar for the purposes of sentencing.

 

            But our cases do not at all suggest that delegations of this type may not carry with them the need to exercise judgment on matters of policy. . . .

 

            . . . The Act sets forth more than merely an “intelligible principle” or minimal standards. One court has aptly put it: “The statute outlines the policies which prompted establishment of the Commission, explains what the Commission should do and how it should do it, and sets out specific directives to govern particular situations.” . . .

 

            Developing proportionate penalties for hundreds of different crimes by a virtually limitless array of offenders is precisely the sort of intricate, labor-intensive task for which delegation to an expert body is especially appropriate. Although Congress has delegated significant discretion to the Commission to draw judgments from its analysis of existing sentencing practice and alternative sentencing models, “Congress is not confined to that method of executing its policy which involves the least possible delegation of discretion to administrative officers.” . . . We have no doubt that in the hands of the Commission “the criteria which Congress has supplied are wholly adequate for carrying out the general policy and purpose” of the Act. . . .

 

            We conclude that in creating the Sentencing Commission—an unusual hybrid in structure and authority—Congress neither delegated excessive legislative power nor upset the constitutionally mandated balance of powers among the coordinate Branches. The Constitution’s structural protections do not prohibit Congress from delegating to an expert body located within the Judicial Branch the intricate task of formulating sentencing guidelines consistent with such significant statutory direction as is present here. Nor does our system of checked and balanced authority prohibit Congress from calling upon the accumulated wisdom and experience of the Judicial Branch in creating policy on a matter uniquely within the ken of judges. Accordingly, we hold that the Act is constitutional.

 

            The judgment of United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri is affirmed. . . .

 

Justice Scalia, dissenting.

 

            While the products of the Sentencing Commission’s labors have been given the modest name “Guidelines,” . . . they have the force and effect of laws, prescribing the sentences criminal defendants are to receive. A judge who disregards them will be reversed. . . . I dissent from today’s decision because I can find no place within our constitutional system for an agency created by Congress to exercise no governmental power other than the making of laws. . . . Today’s decision follows the regrettable tendency of our recent separation-of-powers jurisprudence . . . to treat the Constitution as though it were no more than a generalized prescription that the functions of the Branches should not be commingled too much—how much is too much to be determined, case-by-case, by this Court. The Constitution is not that. Rather, as its name suggests, it is a prescribed structure, a framework, for the conduct of Government. In designing that structure, the Framers themselves considered how much commingling was, in the generality of things, acceptable, and set forth their conclusions in the document. That is the meaning of the statements concerning acceptable commingling made by Madison in defense of the proposed Constitution, and now routinely used as an excuse for disregarding it. When he said, as the Court correctly quotes, that separation of power ‘d[oes] not mean that these [three] departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over the acts of each other,’ . . . his point was that the commingling specifically provided for in the structure that he and his colleagues had designed—the Presidential veto over legislation, the Senate’s confirmation of executive and judicial officers, the Senate’s ratification of treaties, the Congress’ power to impeach and remove executive and judicial officers—did not violate a proper understanding of separation of powers. He would be aghast, I think, to hear those words used as justification for ignoring that carefully designed structure so long as, in the changing view of the Supreme Court from time to time, “too much commingling” does not occur. Consideration of the degree of commingling that a particular disposition produces may be appropriate at the margins where the outline of the framework itself is not clear; but it seems to me far from a marginal question whether our constitutional structure allows for a body which is not the Congress, and yet exercises no governmental powers except the making of rules that have the effect of laws.

 

            I think the Court errs, in other words, not so much because it mistakes the degree of commingling, but because it fails to recognize that this case is not about commingling, but about the creation of a new Branch altogether, a sort of junior-varsity Congress. It may well be that in some circumstances such a Branch would be desirable; perhaps the agency before us here will prove to be so. But there are many desirable dispositions that do not accord with the constitutional structure we live under. And in the long run the improvisation of a constitutional structure on the basis of currently perceived utility will be disastrous.

 

            I respectfully dissent from the Court’s decision, and would reverse the judgment of the District Court.