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Rehnquist slams Congress over reducing sentencing discretion

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

Rehnquist: Legislation did not consider views of the Judiciary.
Rehnquist: Legislation did not consider views of the Judiciary.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The nation's chief justice has sharply criticized Congress over the issues of judicial salaries and laws tightening federal sentencing guidelines.

In his annual report on the federal judiciary, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist said Congress should have sought the judiciary's advice before limiting judges' ability to impose lighter sentences.

Relations between the federal court system and Congress "broke down" over passage of the Protect Act in May, Rehnquist said. The law sharply reduces the number of criminal sentences a judge can impose that fall below ranges in federal sentencing guidelines. These sentences are known as "downward departures."

Supporters of the law say it will ensure that criminals receive the maximum sentence allowed under the law.

But according to Rehnquist, "the Protect Act was enacted without any consideration of the views of the Judiciary."

For judges, it's a matter of judicial independence, Rehnquist said. They want as much discretion as possible in imposing sentences, although Congress can form sentencing rules.

"Somewhat troubling" to Rehnquist is a provision in the law that allows downward departure information to be collected for each judge.

"The subject matter of the questions Congress may pose about judges' decisions, and whether they target the judicial decisions of individual federal judges, could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties," he said.

In May, when the law was enacted, Rehnquist expressed similar concern over the sentencing guidelines, calling them a matter of "judicial independence."

Chief justice calls for higher pay for judiciary

Many judges have strongly resisted legislative efforts to curb their discretionary power, including Rehnquist's colleague, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative. Kennedy has been outspoken in his opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing.

In remarks to the American Bar Association in August, Kennedy said, "The federal sentencing guidelines should be revised downward. By contrast to the guidelines, I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences. In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust."

In his report, Rehnquist also repeated the need for higher judicial pay. He said "continuing uncertainties and delays in the funding process" have led to severe budget problems around the country.

"Many courts may face hiring freezes, furloughs, or reductions in force, " he said.

Rehnquist called on Congress to quickly pass a funding bill for the judiciary. He has previously warned that the quality of federal judges will be compromised if many leave the bench for private practice for financial reasons.

The chief justice noted that the caseload at federal courts continues to rise, with criminal filings currently at a record 70,642.


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