Commuting Prison Term Is Implicit Critique of Sentencing Standards

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the New York Times

Commuting Prison Term Is Implicit Critique of Sentencing Standards

by
Adam Liptak

WASHINGTON - In commuting I. Lewis Libby Jr.'s 30-month prison sentence on Monday, President Bush drew on the same array of arguments about the federal sentencing system often made by defense lawyers - and routinely and strenuously opposed by his own Justice Department.
Critics of the federal sentencing system have a long list of complaints. Sentences, they say, are too harsh. Judges are allowed to take account of facts not proven to the jury. The defendant's positive contributions are ignored, as is the collateral damage that imprisonment causes the families involved. 0704 03

On Monday, President Bush made use of every element of that critique in a detailed statement setting out his reasons for commuting Mr. Libby's sentence.

That left experts in sentencing law scratching their heads.

"The Bush administration, in some sense following the leads of three previous administrations, has repeatedly supported a federal sentencing system that is distinctly disrespectful of the very arguments that Bush has put forward in cutting Libby a break," said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State who runs the blog "Sentencing Law and Policy."

Perhaps inadvertently, Mr. Bush's decision to grant a commutation rather than an outright pardon has started a national conversation about sentencing generally.

"By saying that the sentence was excessive, I wonder if he understood the ramifications of saying that," said Ellen S. Podgor, who teaches criminal law at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. "This is opening up a can of worms about federal sentencing."

By yesterday morning, in fact, Mr. Bush's arguments for keeping Mr. Libby out of prison had become an unexpected gift to defense lawyers around the country, who scrambled to make use of them in their own cases.

"The president of the United States has come in on his own and said, '30 months is not reasonable in this case,' " said Susan James, an Alabama lawyer representing Don E. Siegelman, the state's former governor, who is appealing a sentence he received last week of 88 months for obstruction of justice and other charges.

"It's far more important than if he'd just pardoned Libby," Ms. James said, as forgiving a given offense as an act of executive grace would have had only political repercussions. "What you're going to see is people like me quoting President Bush in every pleading that comes across every federal judge's desk."

Indeed, Mr. Bush's decision may have given birth to a new sort of legal document.

"I anticipate that we're going to get a new motion called 'the Libby motion,' " Professor Podgor said. "It will basically say, 'My client should have got what Libby got, and here's why.' "

As a purely legal matter, of course, Mr. Bush's statement has no particular force outside of Mr. Libby's case. But that does not mean judges will necessarily ignore it.

No one disputes that Mr. Bush has the authority under the Constitution to issue pardons and commutations for federal crimes. But experts in the area, pointing to earlier political scandals in the Reagan, Truman and Grant administrations, said Mr. Bush had acted with unusual speed.

"What distinguishes Scooter Libby from the acts of clemency in the other three episodes," said P. S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor who studies pardons at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., referring to Mr. Libby by his nickname, "is that in those episodes they generally served their time and some other president pardoned them."

Mr. Bush repeated yesterday that he had found Mr. Libby's punishment to be too severe. But experts in federal sentencing law said a sentence of 30 months for lying and obstruction was perfectly consistent with the tough sentences routinely meted out by the federal system.

"One what legal basis could he have reached that result?" asked Frank O. Bowman III, an authority on federal sentencing who teaches law at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said of the commutation. "There is no legal basis."

But nor is there a reason to think that the Justice Department has changed its thinking about the sentencing system generally. Indeed, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales last month said the Justice Department would push for legislation making federal sentences tougher and less flexible.

Similarly, in a case decided two weeks ago by the United States Supreme Court, the Justice Department persuaded the Supreme Court to affirm the 33-month sentence of a defendant whose case closely resembled that against Mr. Libby. The defendant, Victor A. Rita, was, like Mr. Libby, convicted of perjury, making false statements to federal agents and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Rita has performed extensive government service, just as Mr. Libby has. Mr. Rita served in the armed forces for more than 25 years, receiving 35 commendations, awards and medals. Like Mr. Libby, Mr. Rita had no criminal history for purposes of the federal sentencing guidelines.

The judges who sentenced the two men increased their sentences by taking account of the crimes about which they lied. Mr. Rita's perjury concerned what the court called "a possible violation of a machine-gun registration law," while Mr. Libby's of a possible violation of a federal law making it a crime to disclose the identities of undercover intelligence agents in some circumstances.

When Mr. Rita argued that his 33-month sentence had failed adequately to consider his history and circumstances, the Justice Department strenuously disagreed.

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, posted a copy of the government's brief in the Rita case on his blog yesterday and asked: "Why is the president flip-flopping on these criminal justice decisions?"

The Justice Department also took a hard line last year in the case of Jamie Olis, a midlevel executive at the energy company Dynegy convicted of accounting fraud. The department argued that Mr. Olis deserved 292 months, or more than 24 years. He was sentenced to six years.

Sentencing experts said that Mr. Libby's sentence was both tough and in line with general trends.

"It was a pretty harsh sentence," Professor Berman said, "because I tend to view any term of imprisonment for nonviolent first offenses as harsh. But it certainly wasn't out of the normal array of cases I see every day."

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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