Changing Tides in U.S. Lower Courts
Though the Supreme Court docket this year has been filled with the usual issues of state law constitutionality, border disagreements, and religious freedom, this year seems to diverge from the usual with cases each term and projected for the future regarding what the court systems and the supreme court itself are allowed to do. Questions are arising about what kind of cases the Supreme Court can rule on in the first place, how rulings stand when laws get changed, and what is constitutional within the courtroom; specifically because this sitting has been focused on the rights of those on trial and the rights of the courts. Though these topics may not be as interesting to the average American citizen, the results of these cases will go on to create a precedent that hundreds of future cases will have to adhere to. This will change potential practices in the court of law in the future based on the results of these cases.
In the February sitting, two particular cases called into criticism actions in the court of law itself, questioning the power in decision making that district courts actually hold. In the case Currier v. Virginia, a defendant was charged with three crimes of burglary, grand larceny, and possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. The defendant made the decision to sever the possession of a firearm charges from the other two charges. This means that he would be tried separately for the firearm charges from the other two as to not face all three of the charges at once. This often happens to make the defendant look less guilty because fewer charges are being stacked upon them during one trial. The defendant was tried and acquitted from the charges of burglary and grand larceny. When the court went to try him for his other crime, possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, he claimed that they had no right to try him due to collateral estoppel (issue preclusion). Collateral estoppel is the law written in the Double Jeopardy clause that ensures that a person will not be tried for the same crime twice. This is intended to stop a court from harassing or continuously relitigating the same charges against one person. Because the defendant was tried and convicted by the court despite his claims of collateral estoppel, the issue is coming to the Supreme Court. The defendant however may not be justified in his claims as he had not yet been tried for the specific crimes he is claiming are collateral estoppel. If the Supreme Court rules that he is correct, the Commonwealth of Virginia court will be to blame for wrongly charging him. If the Supreme Court rules he is incorrect, it may be easier for the Commonwealth of Virginia to commit what some people would see as collateral estoppel in the future.
The second case, Rosales-Mireles v. United States, will again question specific acts done by lower courts in the United States. In the Rosales-Mireles case, a man pleaded guilty to multiple crimes that he committed in a lower court; however, when adding up the total amount of crimes committed, his probation officer mistakenly counted his misdemeanor charge twice, adding months to his consequential sentence. Rosales-Mireles was seemingly unaware of this mistake as he did not object to his sentencing at the time. The Fifth Circuit Circuit, however, found the lower court who had made the mistake potentially worthy of the legal concept called plain error. The plain error law is one put in place to remedy serious mistakes made by lower courts during an appeal case. Though this case met the criteria for plain error in the eyes of the court, the Fifth Circuit Court chose not to adjust the man’s sentence as they did not believe the error was shocking or truly disrupted justice in anyway. Now the issue going to the Supreme Court is whether the Fifth Circuit Court accurately responded to the accusations of plain error or if they should have tried to reverse the sentence once it became clear that an error was made by lower courts. If the Supreme Court rules in the Fifth Court’s favor, it will give the court quite a bit of power in refusing to respond to these types of mistakes and allow more room for error in sentencing without fear of the court being reprimanded. This subsequently takes power away from those on trial because they will not be able to contest mistakes in sentencing that could be used to intentionally make their sentences longer under the guise of an innocent mistake.
In the March sitting there will also be three significant cases putting the power and privilege of the lower courts into question. The first one of these cases is United States v. Sanchez-Gomez. In the United States v. Sanchez-Gomez trial, Sanchez-Gomez had been tried previously for various crimes and during those trials objected to being put in physical restraints during the trials and those objections were subsequently rejected four times. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court and they lumped those cases together to make a ruling. The issue with this is that because the trials were over by the time this issue was brought to the Circuit court and the law was changed, it could possibly be moot and should not have been ruled on. The Supreme Court now has to decide if the circuit court was correct in making a ruling at all because this exact type of case could come up in the future. If the Supreme Court rules in the favor of the Ninth Circuit court, it may give more freedom to circuit courts in their ability to make decisions on issues that don’t seem relevant anymore by making the connection that if the law changes in the future, it could have an impact, giving them more power.
In the Hughes v United States case, more questions arise about how changing laws affect Supreme Court rulings and sentencing. Hughes pleaded guilty to charges related to drugs and firearms and came to a sentencing agreement. After his sentencing, the sentencing range for his particular crimes was lowered so he appealed to have a shortened sentence. The court refused because they had not decided his sentence based on the range but instead through a plea agreement. The Supreme Court now has to decide whether someone who was sentenced using a plea bargain is eligible for sentence reduction if the sentencing range for their crimes gets lowered after the fact. Should the supreme court rule in the favor of the court that refused to lower the sentence, it would again be giving favor to the court and giving them slightly more power in decision making on this type of matter. If they rule the opposite way, the people in similar positions to Hughes would perhaps be incentivized to reach plea agreements because they know they could still be benefitted by sentence range reductions in the future.
These cases all point to fundamental questions about how much power the court of justice should have and subsequently how much power those on trial should have. The Supreme Court is forced to make decisions that will either give judges even more power without fear of being reprimanded for their actions. Perhaps, they could even enable these courts to use personal bias to further punish those on trial through the use of small legal details like purposefully making “mistakes” to increase sentencing. On the other hand, one could argue that giving courts to make this kind of decisions with increase the efficiency of the court of law. Overall, questions about the freedoms that those on trial will have to appeal decisions and the power of the court system will be hotly debated this year and will likely create new precedent for courts of law in the future.