Cases & Deals

NACDL amicus brief provides impetus for Supreme Court criminal sentencing decision

Client(s) National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Citing an amicus brief authored by Jones Day for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL"), the Supreme Court resolved a longstanding question of criminal resentencing law that fractured the Court seven years earlier. Both the majority and Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion in Hughes v. United States relied on the NACDL brief to explain the need for the new approach the Court adopted.

Defendants who plead guilty generally can request sentence reductions if the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines are subsequently lowered with retroactive effect under a statute that allows reductions for sentences "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered." Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), however, prosecutors and criminal defendants can agree on a plea and corresponding sentence that the trial court must either accept or reject without change. Lower courts split on whether a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea was "based on" the Sentencing Guidelines or the parties' plea agreement and therefore disagreed whether sentence reductions were allowed for such pleas.

In 2011, the Court issued a fractured 4 -1 -4 decision on that question in Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011). Justice Sotomayor was the solo vote, concurring in the judgment on grounds adopted by no other Justices. Without a clear five-Justice majority, Freeman led to further lower court disagreement. The Court granted certiorari in Hughes to address this confusion.

Most of the Hughes amicus briefs addressed how to interpret splintered prior decisions of the Court like Freeman. NACDL's amicus brief took a different approach. It instead struck a careful balance by addressing the real-world unpredictability and inequitable results caused by Freeman's separate writing to highlight the need for the Court to reach the majority that eluded it in the earlier case.

That approach proved successful. The Court avoided the question most amici addressed by reaching a true majority on the underlying substantive issue. It determined that a defendant who pleads guilty is entitled to request a reduced sentence so long as the Sentencing Guidelines range "was part of the framework the district court relied on" when imposing sentence in the first place. Both Justice Kennedy's majority opinion and Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion explaining her change from her Freeman separate writing cited the NACDL brief as an impetus for the decision.

Hughes v. United States, No. 17-155 (U.S.)