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Will Biden Reinvigorate Quorum-Less Sentencing Commission?

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, a panel that advises the federal judiciary on criminal-sentencing issues, played a significant role in the career of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who served as a member. The seven-member body has dwindled to one Senate-confirmed commissioner, preventing it from conducting official business for more than three years and rendering it unable to provide formal guidance to judges after Congress passed a criminal-justice overhaul in 2018. The commission’s dormancy has caught the attention of Supreme Court justices, who have raised concerns about the panel’s inability to fulfill its responsibilities, the Wall Street Journal reports. Established by Congress in 1984, the commission is a bipartisan, independent agency that works to promote consistency in federal sentencing, so that defendants in different parts of the U.S. don’t receive wildly different sentences for the same offenses.

The commission, which is located within the judicial branch, has written sentencing guidelines for every major crime in the criminal code, taking broadly worded federal laws and adding specificity for how judges should apply them to real-world circumstances. When the commission is operational, it regularly considers guideline updates to ensure that criminal sentences are appropriate and applied uniformly. The commission lost its quorum at the beginning of 2019. In 2020, President Trump intended to submit a new batch of nominees, but he never sent them to the Senate. Now, President Biden could appoint the whole commission anew, while there is bipartisan support for making some aspects of federal sentencing less harsh. The president hasn’t yet nominated a slate of commissioners. “The potential for the commission to do big things with the right set of people is huge,” said New York University law Prof. Rachel Barkow, a former commissioner. Without a quorum, it hasn’t been able to address murky legal areas or guidelines that may be out of date.


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