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Two Justices Urge Filling U.S. Sentencing Panel Vacancies

Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett raised concerns on Monday about disparities over federal sentencing guidelines. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has been unable to issue new guidelines to lower courts because the commission lacks a quorum, CNN reports. "At this point, the Sentencing Commission has not had a quorum for three full years," Sotomayor wrote. This has meant that lower courts are divided on issues that could lead to "direct and severe" consequences for defendants' sentences, she said.

The fact that two justices on the opposite sides of the ideological spectrum weighed in together caused experts to believe that Barrett might be concerned about the operation of the federal sentencing system and potential disparities that can arise because the commission has not been able to function.

"It's an issue that Sotomayor has raised -- often alone -- in past cases," said law Prof. Douglas Berman of Ohio State University. "That Barrett now joins her statement could be a new chapter in the way the court starts looking at these issues." During the Trump administration, the terms of several commissioners expired and the Senate failed to act on President Trump's nominees. Biden has yet to nominate new members. The commission was created in 1984 to reduce sentence disparities. It is supposed to have seven members, each serving six-year terms. It currently has one active member, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Sotomayor's statement came as the justices denied a petition from Thomas Guerrant, who is serving a 10-year term for selling seven grams of heroin to an informant, fled from police and damaged a U.S. Marshals vehicle. A judge determined that Guerrant was a "career offender" because of two prior convictions. Lawyers for Guerrant told the justices that he would have received a much shorter sentence if he were charged in other judicial circuits because they have a different interpretation for a "controlled substance offense."

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