In recent years, federal criminal defendants have enjoyed great success in challenging “residual clauses” within the United States Code as unconstitutional. This began in 2015 when the United States Supreme Court, in Johnson v. United States,1 struck a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act2 as void for vagueness. Johnson’s holding at first appeared monumental because it invalidated a provision commonly used to enhance the prison sentences of offenders with certain qualifying prior convictions. Subsequent developments, however, significantly dulled the impact of Johnson, thwarting the dramatic reduction in sentences it once foreshadowed.
This Article is about how Johnson came to be and the mechanisms through which the Supreme Court has subsequently weakened Johnson’s effect. It will describe two specific mechanisms: (1) the Supreme Court’s recasting of the history of federal sentencing in an attempt to contextualize the holding of Booker v. United States3 as a return to the bygone days of indeterminate sentencing; and (2) the Supreme Court’s evolving view of the role of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in the federal criminal system that minimizes the Guidelines’ actual influence over a district court’s sentencing decisions. It will then explain why these mechanisms—one that exerts control over the past and one that exerts control over the present—are both unfounded. Finally, this Article will suggest ways in which those involved in federal criminal law—the United States Sentencing Commission (Sentencing Commission), Congress, the courts, and the criminal bar—can address the problems that the Court’s recent decisions have caused in our criminal justice system.
Brandon E. Beck,
The Orwell Court: How the Supreme Court Recast History and Minimized the Role of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to Justify Limiting the Impact of Johnson v. United States,
Buff. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.buffalo.edu/buffalolawreview/vol66/iss5/2