In another of a series of recent unanimous decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court, the nine justices on the bench dealt a harsh blow to the Biden administration’s attempt to disregard the rule of law in a case involving former President Donald Trump’s landmark criminal justice reform legislation, the First Step Act, as the Washington Examiner reports.
The matter at issue was raised by federal prisoner Tarahrick Terry, a repeat criminal offender who pleaded guilty to dealing crack cocaine back in 2008. As part of that agreement, additional gun charges pending against Terry were dismissed by the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama.
In the intervening years, the First Step Act was passed by Congress and signed by Trump, and – among other things – it permitted the sentences of current inmates to undergo review of they had been shaped by mandatory minimum sentencing rules that had been in effect prior to 2020.
Terry had requested precisely that sort of review in his case, in which he had been sentenced to over 15 years, but the lower federal courts disagreed, finding that his punishment had not been formulated pursuant to the previous mandatory minimums specifically referenced by the First Step Act. Rather, his sentence was the result, in large part, of his status as a “career offender” with a long list of serious crimes under his belt.
The Biden DOJ, however, declared that it would not defend the rulings issued by the federal courts below, stating that the prior positions taken in opposition to Terry were in error, ultimately abdicating its responsibility to enforce the provisions of the Act as passed by Congress. Another lawyer outside the agency was appointed to argue on Terry’s behalf at the high court, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas described Terry’s contentions about the meaning of the statute as “textual sleight of hand,” stating that the First Step Act did not modify the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a law that adjusted the amount of crack cocaine that triggered the possibility of a reduced sentence, and that based on the specifics of his offense, Terry was subject to the same sentence under the old law as under the new one, as USA Today noted.
“We will not convert nouns to adjectives and vice versa,” wrote Thomas, who added that “it defies common parlance to say that altering a different provision modified” the particular issue of relevance in Terry’s case.
Though she came to her conclusion a bit differently than Thomas, even liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor had no choice but to slap down the Biden administration’s attempt to ignore the law as enacted. She did, however, suggest that lawmakers can and should take further steps to retroactively provide relief to folks like Terry whose situations they may have intended to be covered by reform measures, saying, “Fortunately, Congress has numerous tools to right this injustice.”
As the Examiner aptly noted, if Congress does decide to carve out exceptions for situations such as Terry’s, the Biden DOJ may offer all the sentencing relief the law allows. But absent such action, it is heartening to see that the liberal wing of the high court has – at least here – maintained fidelity to this particular statute as written.