Opinion: Morning Examiner

Eric Holder in hot water with federal judge over drug sentencing guidelines

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Mark Tapscott,Morning Examiner,Eric Holder,Drug Legalization,Attorney General,Justice Department,Drug Cartels

Attorney General Eric Holder is the nation's chief law enforcement officer, so his job is to enforce laws duly passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Nowhere in his job description does the AG get to decide unilaterally to reduce federal drug sentencing guidelines. Don't expect Holder to be deterred by that fact, however.

After appearing several months ago before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to endorse a proposal it was then considering to reduce penalties in a variety of federal drug crimes, Holder effectively preempted both the commission, which is an independent agency within the judicial branch, and the Congress by instructing all U.S. assistant attorneys to not object when defense lawyers ask that their convicted clients be punished under the proposed guidelines.

Until yesterday, the commission had not yet officially endorsed the proposal. Congress has until Nov. 1, 2014, to decide whether it approves of it.

Appeals Court judge not pleased

William B. Pryor is an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judge. He's also a member of the sentencing commission. What he is not is pleased with Holder's action.

Pryor blasted Holder Thursday, saying Holder's "unprecedented instruction disrespected our statutory role, 'as an independent commission in the judicial branch,' to establish sentencing policies and practices under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, 28 U.S.C. § 991(a), (b), and the role of Congress, as the legislative branch, to decide whether to revise, modify, or disapprove our proposed amendment, id. § 994(p)."

Pryor added that "the law provides the executive [branch] no authority to establish national sentencing policies based on speculation about how we and Congress might vote on a proposed amendment."

Rule of law?

Georgetown University Professor of Law William G. Otis knows a bit about the issue, having served more than a decade as a member the AG's advisory committee on sentencing guidelines.

The issue now, according to Otis, is this:

"For those committed to the rule of law, the question now goes beyond whether reducing sentences for dealers in dangerous drugs is wise. It's whether the attorney general ... is committed to following the law as it exists, or, instead, as he wants and speculates it might become.

"One way to consider this question is to ask whether, if the attorney general ordered prosecutors to seek increased sentences that were, at the time, only preliminary, those applauding Mr. Holder's actions would be as enthusiastic as they are today."

Hmmm. The "rule of law." Wasn't there something in those dusty old history books public-school students used to have to read about "a government of laws, not men?"

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Op-eds/Tyler Martinez: Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision strengthens First Amendment freedoms.

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