In his year-end report, U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist criticized a new law that places federal judges under scrutiny for sentences that fall short of those called for by guidelines. The law, enacted last spring as an amendment to the Amber Alert child protection measure, “could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties,” Rehnquist said. “It seems that the traditional interchange between the Congress and the judiciary broke down” when the amendment passed without any formal evaluation from the judiciary, the Chief Justice said, reported the New York Times.
The U.S. Judicial Conference, 27 judges headed by Rehnquist who make policy for the federal courts, voted unanimously in September to ask Congress to repeal the amendment. The Times says prospects for repeal appear slight. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisc.) said Congress acted to deal with the “growing problem of downward departures” – sentences below the minimums in the guidelines – that had been “undermining sentencing fairness throughout the federal system.” Sensenbrenner said the disagreement “resulted from a policy dispute between Congress and the judiciary and did not result from any breakdown in communication between the branches or a lack of opportunity for judges to express their thoughts on this issue.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called Rehnquist’s statement “extraordinary.” Kennedy has introduced a bill to repeal the amendment. The measure is known as the Feeney Amendment, for its sponsor, Representative Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) It instructed the United States Sentencing Commission to issue new rules to “ensure that the incidence of downward departures is substantially reduced.” The commission was ordered to maintain judge-by-judge records of sentencing departures and to send the files to the attorney general, who must provide the information to the Judiciary Committees of both houses.
The Times says Rehnquist is trying to raise the issue’s public visibility. He has long been concerned about guarding judicial independence, and it was in those terms that he expressed his opposition to the Feeney Amendment.