A panel of U.S. District Court judges in Salt Lake City late Friday afternoon listened to abbreviated oral arguments and then took under advisement a challenge by John Timothy Singer of new federal sentencing guidelines.
The argument was the first such waged in Utah, although similar challenges have been taking place in federal courtrooms across the nation since Congress imposed the guidelines last November.Singer's attorney, G. Fred Metos, told the four-judge panel that the new sentencing guidelines violate both separation-of-powers and due-process provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
However, U.S. Attorney Brent Ward countered, saying the guidelines, although representing a quantum leap in sentencing, can hold up to constitutional scrutiny.
Ward also asked that Singer's motion be denied.
Metos said a clear conflict over the issue of separation of powers exists because the guidelines are established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is part of the judicial branch of government, yet its members are subject to removal by the president, who clearly represents the executive branch.
The sentencing commission does not hear cases or controversies, but rather sets policies, and therefore doesn't really belong in the judicial branch, Metos said during his comments, which were kept to a strict 20-minute limit by Chief Judge Bruce Jenkins.
Metos also said that by having a point system, judges are unable to consider mitigating factors, thus depriving defendants of their right to due process.
The guidelines provide for a system whereby points are set up for such things as the nature of the offense, the severity of the offense and the convicted person's past record, or lack of.
Although the merits of Singer's case were not discussed Friday, Metos has said earlier that Jenkins' hands will basically be tied when he sentences Singer on July 1 because the guidelines remove most of his discretionary sentencing powers.
He said the same factors that judges considered before the guidelines went into effect are still being considered. It's just that a specific weight is being given to these factors.
"It could be argued that defendants' rights are better protected than under previous law."
Ward did agree that the judicial label Congress applied to the sentencing commission is a misnomer. "By function, it is an executive agency. . . . But its work should not be invalidated because it was assigned a wrong label," he said.
The issue's national scope attracted several hired guns to Jenkins' courtroom Friday.
Jerry Mooney, representing the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, continued to beat the due-process drum, saying the determining factors the sentencing commission has established go too far.
But, Donald Purdy, deputy general counsel for the sentencing commission, said the old system was actually guilty of violating due process more.
Purdy said the guidelines weren't created as a whim, but are the result of careful review of 10,500 cases. He said it may seem like a short-term problem, but history will regard it as a long-term gain for the criminal justice system.
Almost two-thirds of the nearly 170 federal judges who have heard challenges to the new guidelines have ruled them unconstitutional, primarily on the argument of separation of powers.
The U.S. Supreme Court also is expected to hear the matter in the near future.