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Excerpts from:

1998 Year-End Report of the Federal Judiciary

By William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States

Appointments to the United States Sentencing Commission

The political impasse on the appointments to the United States Sentencing Commission, which has been problematic for the past few years, has now reached stunning proportions. There currently are no Commissioners at the Sentencing Commission and no nominations are pending. The failure to fill these vacancies is all the more egregious when one considers the fact that the seven Commissioners authorized by statute have staggered six-year terms, and that there are additional statutory constraints to insure a bipartisan Commission. For example, at least three of the Commissioners must be federal judges, and no more than four can be members of the same political party.

The fact that no appointments have been made to fill any one of these seven vacancies is paralyzing a critical component of the federal criminal justice system.

The Sentencing Commission was created under the Sentencing Reform Act provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Its principal purposes are to reduce disparity in sentencing in the federal courts; to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines prescribing the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes; to advise and assist Congress and the Executive Branch in the development of effective and efficient crime policy; and to collect, analyze, research, and distribute a broad array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues, serving as an information resource for Congress, the Executive Branch, the courts, criminal justice practitioners, the academic community, and the public.

Although the staff of the Commission has been able to carry on the Commission's routine functions, in its present state the Commission is unable to perform some of its core and crucial responsibilities. For example, there are no Commissioners to propose guideline amendments or to take action on Congressional directives or implement legislation. There are no Commissioners to resolve or address circuit conflicts in Sentencing Guidelines interpretations. Every commission needs to make adjustments or respond to changing circumstances or new information. The Sentencing Commission is unable to do so until Commissioners are appointed. With criminal cases in federal courts reaching historic levels, the Judiciary needs a fully functioning Sentencing Commission. If we are going to have Sentencing Guidelines, the Sentencing Commission must be empowered to do its work. The President and the Senate should give this situation their immediate attention.

Caseload and Expanding Jurisdiction

The number of cases brought to the federal courts is one of the most serious problems facing them today. Criminal case filings in federal courts rose 15% in 1998­­nearly tripling the 5.2% increase in 1997.

Over the last decade, Congress has contributed significantly to the rising caseload by continuing to federalize crimes already covered by state laws. A series of such laws have been enacted in the past few years, including, to name a few, the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, and the recent arson provisions added to Title 18 in 1994.

The trend to federalize crimes that traditionally have been handled in state courts not only is taxing the Judiciary's resources and affecting its budget needs, but it also threatens to change entirely the nature of our federal system.

The pressure in Congress to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime needs to be balanced with an inquiry into whether states are doing an adequate job in these particular areas and, ultimately, whether we want most of our legal relationships decided at the national rather than local level. Federal courts were not created to adjudicate local crimes, no matter how sensational or heinous the crimes may be. State courts do, can, and should handle such problems.

While there certainly are areas in criminal law in which the federal government must act, the vast majority of localized criminal cases should be decided in the state courts which are equipped for such matters. This principle was enunciated by Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century, and Dwight Eisenhower in the 20th twentieth century - matters that can be handled adequately by the states should be left to them; matters that cannot be so handled should be undertaken by the federal government.

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