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Back to list of Dissenting Judges

Tuesday, January 27, 2004 - Associated Press

Western Federal Judges Rip New Law Limiting Sentencing Discretion

By Paul Chavez, Associated Press Writer

Chief judges of the federal district courts in the West objected Tuesday to a new law limiting their discretion in sentencing people convicted of crimes, saying Congress should have consulted them before acting.

The opposition was voiced during a two-day meeting of the 15 chief
district judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit that concluded here Tuesday.

Judge John Coughenour of Seattle said the group had "virtual unanimity" in its disdain for the Feeney amendment, which compels judges to strictly follow federal sentencing guidelines and orders that reports be sent to Congress on anyone who deviates from them.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., was placed in a federal anti-crime bill signed by President Bush last year. It was supported by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft's Department of Justice made no attempt to consult with judges before supporting the amendment, Coughenour said, and ignored a sentencing commission created by Congress to make recommendations on such matters.

"The Justice Department is unwilling to undo the mistake," he added.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has also criticized the law.

Supporters say it was needed to ensure fair and equal sentencing throughout the court system. But Judge Ancer Haggerty of Portland, Ore., said Congress enacted the measure, in part, using misleading statistics about how often federal judges departed from sentencing guidelines.

"If you look at the overall number of times a judge supposedly departed, it was done at the request of the government in most cases," Haggerty said.

Mary Schroeder, chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the district judges also considered proposals on how to make the courts of the circuit more efficient.

She said judges will consider increasing the use of special masters to oversee complex patent and intellectual property cases that require technical expertise.

Schroeder also introduced a jury reform proposal that would enhance jurors' experience. Jurors, for example, may be allowed to ask questions during a trial and be given permission to discuss jury proceedings.

The 9th Circuit also is looking at ways to deal with the high number of litigants who represent themselves. About 40 percent of the appeals in the circuit involve people acting as their own attorney, Schroeder said.

She said the court plans to consider expanding programs that provide free representation by qualified attorneys.

The chief district judges also discussed how to cope with rising costs Coughenour said are outstripping their "modest increase in budget."

Layoffs have occurred in some district courts, and courthouse and filing window hours may be reduced to cut costs, said Judge Consuelo Marshall, who presides in Los Angeles.

The 9th Circuit includes federal courts in Hawaii, Arizona, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, as well as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

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