Mistretta v. United States: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

The constitutionality of the federal Sentencing Commission

Scales of justice

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Mistretta v. United States (1989) asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the United States Sentencing Commission, created by Congress through the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, was constitutional. The court found that the Congress could use practical and specific legislation to form a special commission, dedicated to creating and maintaining federal sentencing guidelines.

Fast Facts: Mistretta v. United States

  • Case Argued: October 5, 1988
  • Decision Issued: January 18,1989
  • Petitioner: John Mistretta
  • Respondent:  United States
  • Key Questions: Is the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 constitutional?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Rehnquist, Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Kennedy
  • Dissenting: Justice Scalia
  • Ruling: Congressional legislation that created the federal sentencing commission did not violate the separation of powers doctrine, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Facts of the Case

In 1984, Congress signed off on the Sentencing Reform Act in an effort to create uniform sentencing guidelines. The act empowered a specialized group of experts called the Sentencing Commission. Prior to the commission, individual federal judges used their own discretion when sentencing offenders. The commission was tasked with creating, reviewing, and revising policy used to determine punishments for federal offenders. Any changes were to be reported to Congress.

John M. Mistretta challenged the commission's authority after receiving a sentence of 18 months' imprisonment for drug related charges under commission guidelines. The Supreme Court agreed to take on the case because of its importance to the public and to settle what Justice Harry A. Blackmun referred to in his decision as "disarray among the Federal District Courts."

Constitutional Issues

Can Congress allow a special group of experts to create and monitor federal rules for sentencing? Did Congress violate the separation of powers when it delegated responsibilities in this way?

Arguments

An attorney representing Mistretta argued that Congress overlooked the "nondelegation doctrine" when it created the Sentencing Commission. The nondelegation doctrine, a legal concept that comes from the separation of powers, prevents individual branches of the government from passing power on to other branches. The attorney claimed that Congress had unlawfully passed off its authority to oversee federal sentencing when it created a separate commission. In doing so, Congress had ignored separation of powers, he argued.

An attorney on behalf of the government argued that the Supreme Court should adopt a more practical interpretation of separation of powers. Some governmental duties require cooperation, rather than exclusivity, he argued. The creation of the Sentencing Commission was a logical way to dedicate a task to a specialized group, in hopes of ensuring fair sentencing in federal courts, the attorney argued.

Majority Opinion

In an 8-1 decision delivered by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, affirming Mistretta's sentence. The decision was split into two different sections: delegation and separation of powers.

Delegation

The constitution does not prevent a branch from assigning specific tasks to expert groups, split between branches. The majority applied the "intelligible principle test," which asks whether the Congress had granted authority in a way that was practical, specific, and detailed. Justice Blackmun wrote that Congress had achieved that goal. The legislative body offered lists of factors to aid the Sentencing Commission in developing guidelines. It also outlined clear instructions for the commission within the legislation, ensuring a constitutional manner of delegation, the majority found.

Separation of Powers

The majority applied a broad interpretation of the separation of powers. The constitution distributes power between branches to ensure independence, but acknowledges that the branches will sometimes need to work together to accomplish common goals. The sentencing commission derives its authority from Congress but is located within the Judicial Branch and executes its mission using members appointed by the executive branch. Congress created a cooperative commission to achieve a common goal: federal sentencing guidelines, the Court found.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented. Justice Scalia argued that the sentencing guidelines "have the force and effect of laws." By creating the commission, Congress gave its legislative power to a separate entity, housed within the judicial branch. Justice Scalia saw this as a clear violation of the separation of powers and the nondelegation doctrines, disagreeing with the Court's decision to take a "common-sense" approach to each.

Impact

Prior to the ruling in Mistretta v. United States, the Supreme Court had struck down statutes and panels that suggested blurred lines between the branches. After the decision, Mistretta was regarded by some as a ruling in favor of practical governance. Others expressed concern over the decision's effect on the separation of powers doctrine.

Sources

  • Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989).
  • Stith, Kate, and Steve Y. Koh. “The Politics of Sentencing Reform: The Legislative History of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.” Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository, 1993.