Monday, June 4, 2018
Today the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision in Hughes v. United States (covered earlier here and here). The dispute between the litigants involved the defendant’s eligibility to seek a sentence reduction based on a retroactive lowering of the sentencing guidelines. Two of the three questions presented in the defendant’s cert petition, however, involved how to determine the precedential effect of Supreme Court decisions with no majority opinion—an inquiry that is typically assessed using the rule from Marks v. United States. Marks played an important role in Hughes because the key Supreme Court decision on the substantive sentencing question—Freeman v. United States—was a 4-1-4 split.
In today’s Hughes opinion, the Court declined to address broader Marks-related issues. From Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion:
To resolve these differences over the proper application of Marks and the proper interpretation of §3582(c)(2), the Court granted certiorari in the present case. 583 U. S. ___ (2017). The first two questions, relating to Marks, are as follows: (1) “Whether this Court’s decision in Marks means that the concurring opinion in a 4–1–4 decision represents the holding of the Court where neither the plurality’s reasoning nor the concurrence’s reasoning is a logical subset of the other”; and (2) “Whether, under Marks, the lower courts are bound by the four-Justice plurality opinion in Freeman, or, instead, by Justice Sotomayor’s separate concurring opinion with which all eight other Justices disagreed.” Pet. for Cert. i.
The third question is directed to the underlying statutory issue in this case, the substantive, sentencing issue the Court discussed in the three opinions issued in Freeman. That question is: “Whether, as the four-Justice plurality in Freeman concluded, a defendant who enters into a Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement is generally eligible for a sentence reduction if there is a later, retroactive amendment to the relevant Sentencing Guidelines range.” Pet. for Cert. ii.
Taking instruction from the cases decided in the wake of Freeman and the systemic concerns that have arisen in some Circuits, and considering as well the arguments of the parties as to question three, a majority of the Court in the instant case now can resolve the sentencing issue on its merits. So it will be unnecessary to consider questions one and two despite the extensive briefing and careful argument the parties presented to the Court concerning the proper application of Marks. The opinion that follows resolves the sentencing issue in this case; and, as well, it should give the necessary guidance to federal district courts and to the courts of appeals with respect to plea agreements of the kind presented here and in Freeman.
As to the substantive sentencing question in Hughes, Justice Kennedy writes:
To resolve the uncertainty that resulted from this Court’s divided decision in Freeman, the Court now holds that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is “based on” the defendant’s Guidelines range so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement.
Justice Sotomayor writes a concurring opinion, and Chief Justice Roberts writes a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Alito.