Summary of Mistretta v. United States
Citation: 488 U.S. 361 (1989)
Relevant Facts: Since the earliest federal criminal statutes were adopted, federal judges were afforded broad latitude to select an appropriate sentence for those convicted thereunder. However, after many years of wide disparities in punishment for the same offenses, Congress saw fit to institute reforms aimed at, inter alia, providing uniform sentencing guidelines. To that end, Congress adopted the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Under the terms of the Act, Congress delegated authority for determining appropriate sentences to the United States Sentencing Commission (The Commission). The Commission, consisting of judges and non-judges, would be part of the judicial branch and its determinations would be binding on federal judges as they sought to impose sentences on criminal defendants. John Mistretta was arrested and charged with cocaine related offenses, including attempted distribution. At trial, Mistretta moved to have the guidelines declared unconstitutional, arguing that Congress exceeded its authority to delegate power and violated separation of powers principles. The Court denied his motion, Mistretta plead guilty, and the Court sentenced him to eighteen months under the sentencing guidelines. Thereafter, Mistretta appealed his sentenced to the Eighth Circuit. However, both Mistretta and the United States petitioned under Supreme Court Rule 18 for certiorari before judgment. The Court granted certiorari, and noted the “imperative public importance" of the question presented as well as the confusion amongst district courts regarding the viability of the sentencing guidelines.
Issue: Did Congress exceed its delegation authority by creating the Sentencing Commission, housed within the judicial branch, whose determinations are outside the control of Congress and binding on federal judges? Does the Act at issue here offend separation of powers principles?
Holding: No, Congress properly exercised delegation authority by creating a Commission with a sufficiently clear mandate to effectuate Congressional intent. No, the creation of the Commission within the judicial branch and the service of federal judges alongside members appointed by the President are consistent with separation of powers.
Reasoning: Justice Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by all but Justice Scalia (dissent below) and joined by Justice Brennan as to all but Note 11. First, the majority noted the background of sentencing disparities that lead to the Congressional Act at issue here. Turning to the Constitutional questions, the majority considered delegation principles. Under the precedents of the Court, Congress may delegate responsibility so long as the delegation includes an “intelligible principle" to guide exercise of the authority delegated and so long as Congress has not delegated its legislative function. The Court concluded that Congress provided sufficient guidance here, giving the Commission a lengthy list of factors that should influence sentences and detailing a list of considerations specific to each defendant that should guide sentencing decisions. The majority rejected the argument that Congress, having granted broad authority, had thus violated delegation authority principles. Congress may delegate broad powers so long as the delegation is accompanied by sufficiently definite guiding principles. Next, the majority considered separation of powers arguments. Citing the long history of separation of powers jurisprudence, emanating from and consistent with Madison’s plan for separate but coequal branches of government, Justice Blackmun explained that the Court would view with suspicion any attempt to shift functions historically and properly undertaken by one branch of government to another. In this case, responding to claims that the Commission unconstitutionally interfered with the independence of the Judiciary by having judges serve and by forcing them to work with non-judges, the Court placed great emphasis on the proper understanding of the role of the Commission and its placement within government structures. While federal judicial operations are limited to cases and controversies, that general understanding is not without exceptions. When, as here, a congressionally created body serves in a judicial rule-making capacity that does not interfere with the prerogatives of other branches, and indeed has Congressional blessing, there is no violation of separation of powers. Furthermore, the Court analogized judicial service on the commission to service in rule-making committees under the various Rules Enabling Acts. Finally, as to the composition of the Commission, the Court concluded that a per se rule prohibiting judicial service in a Commission of this nature is inappropriate, and that judicial participation here neither threatened judicial independence nor entangled judges with political operations. While the Court was cautious in evaluating the unique nature of the Commission at issue, the majority concluded that Congress may constitutionally rely on the expertise of federal judges, working with non-judges, to create proper rules that balance the important interests at stake while maintaining properly separated branches of government.
Concurrence: Justice Brennan joined the majority as to all but Footnote 11, wherein the Court concluded that the Commission could include the death penalty within its guidelines only if authorized by Congress in the first instance and consistent with the guidelines generally provided to the Commission.
Dissent: Justice Scalia dissented. First, Justice Scalia agreed that Congress had not exceeded its authority to delegate here, citing the specific guidance provided. However, as to separation of powers and the nature of authority delegated, Justice Scalia objected to a Commission that, by the terms of the Act, would be contained within the judicial branch but whose determinations would have the force of law. As Justice Scalia explained, the commission was not in the business of enforcing the laws of Congress as adopted, and thus not within the Executive Branch. Similarly, the Commission had no role in adjudicating the rights of individual parties or in determining guilt, innocence, or sentencing of individual defendants. Rather, the Commission essentially passed laws. Discussing the majority’s contention regarding the proper placement of the Commission, Justice Scalia noted that it made little sense to describe a body within one branch of government when it was not responsible to that branch nor did it owe its authority to that branch. Rather, the Commission was a legislative creation subject to alteration by the legislature, and exercising traditionally legislative functions. Concluding, Justice Scalia opined that the majority erred not in assigning any particularly degree of comingling of functions between the branches, but in assuming this case was about the balance between the branches. In Justice Scalia’s view, Congress had effectively created a new branch (he termed it a “Junior Varsity Congress") given guidance by Congress but independently exercising legislative authority.
Conclusion: Congress may delegate authority to create sentencing guidelines to a Commission composed of federal judges and other experts and empower that body to create binding guidelines. Service of federal judges in a non-judicial, rule-making capacity does not offend separation of powers under the unique circumstances of the Commission at issue here.