Published on Thursday, January 1, 2004 by Reuters
Chief Justice Blasts Congress on Sentencing
by Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON - U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist on Thursday lashed out at Congress for not seeking input from the judiciary before it approved a law aimed at forcing judges to follow tougher sentencing guidelines.
"During the last year, it seems that the traditional interchange between the Congress and the judiciary broke down when Congress enacted what is known as the PROTECT Act, making some rather dramatic changes to the laws governing the federal sentencing process," Rehnquist said in his 2003 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.
Rehnquist, who heads a group of 27 judges that in September called for a repeal of the law, spent much of his annual report criticizing lawmakers for approving legislation that severely limits the ability of judges to hand down lighter sentences than what the federal sentencing guidelines call for.
Though he noted that it was Congress' prerogative to determine what to consider when approving new laws, Rehnquist said it would have improved the legislative process to at least ask the judiciary its views.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, said lawmakers had received input from federal judges as they were considering the draft legislation.
"This disagreement resulted from a policy dispute between Congress and the judiciary and did not result from any breakdown in communications between the branches or a lack of opportunity for judges to express their thoughts on this issue," Sensenbrenner said in a statement.
The judiciary has been mired in a battle with Congress and the Justice Department to keep its independence and allow judges to retain flexibility in sentencing.
In April, Congress adopted the law aimed at forcing judges to follow stricter sentencing guidelines. The Justice Department was charged with creating a plan to enforce the rules.
As a result, Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal prosecutors to report on judges who issue lighter sentences than what is recommended by the guidelines.
Rehnquist said he was particularly troubled by that requirement, since it collects information on an individual judge-by-judge basis.
He said if Congress begins to question a judge's decisions, it could appear to be "an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties."
Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd