A federal judge in Brooklyn, Sterling Johnson Jr., who was New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor from 1975 until 1991, has issued an order barring Congress from reviewing his case sentencing records. The New York Times says the order is a protest against the Feeney amendment to a bill signed in April. It limits situations in which a judge can hand down a lesser sentence than called for by federal guidelines.
Advocates of the law say it ensures that federal courts administer punishment uniformly, taking into account the nature of the crime, a defendant’s criminal history, admission of guilt, and the victim’s vulnerability. The Feeney amendment, said U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson, is an effort to guarantee that “when a predator commits a crime, no matter where in the country it occurs, he does the same amount of hard time.”
The law requires judges to provide supporting documents on sentencies they issue, and gives Congress access to the papers.
“Congress has the authority to make law, and federal judges have the authority to seal documents in cases over which they preside,” Judge Johnson said. “All I’ve done is exert legitimate judicial authority.” Congressman Feeney disagrees. “We have full authority to act over federal judges and the right to access those documents,” he said.
Privacy rights are among judges’ concerns. The reports at issue include interviews with everyone who might have knowledge of the defendant, such as psychiatrists, extended family members, friends, former spouses, even neighbors. Johnson seems determined to hold his ground. “At some point you have to take a stand,” he said. “If Congress wants to make a deck of cards for the judges like they did for the bad guys in Iraq, then make me the ace of spades.”