John Martin resigns next month after 13 years a federal trial judge in New York city in protest against new restrictions on the power of judges to impose criminal sentences. The Christian Science Monitor says that Martin is part of a rebellion in the federal judiciary over new congressional strictures that limit the range of prison sentences judges can dispense. From Washington to California, judges are chafing at guidelines that eliminate flexibility in setting jail terms for whole categories of crimes. U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist agrees that the changes go too far. Martin is a former federal prosecutor who was appointed by George H.W. Bush.
Under rules effective last month, judges who depart from federal sentencing guidelines face the possibility of their individual sentencing records being made public. Supporters of the new guidelines say they are needed to rein in maverick judges and ensure uniformity of sentencing. Judges say the changes, included in a little-debated amendment attached to a bill on kidnapped children, throws the balance between discretion and consistent punishment out of whack.
Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican, introduced the legislation that requires judges to explain sentences lower than the rules recommend. “It’s about accountability,” says Feeney. “It tells judges that they ought to explain to the world why they thought a decision was appropriate.” For the first time, Congress spelled out penalties for specific crimes – sexual abuse and kidnapping of children – rather than letting a federal commission establish the guidelines.