A federal judge strongly criticized Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday for taking what he said was unilateral action on drug sentencing.
U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor Jr., a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, expressed his unease with Holder directive to federal prosecutors on reducing prosecutions and sentencing for drug crimes, thus bypassing the regular commission process.
“The law provides the executive no authority to establish national sentencing policies based on speculation about how we and Congress might vote on a proposed amendment,” Pryor said.
The Sentencing Commission was already forming an amendment to the sentencing guidelines to submit to Congress for consideration.
“I regret that before we voted on the amendment, the attorney general instructed assistant United States attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” Pryor said. “That unprecedented instruction disrespected our statutory role.”
Pryor said that under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the commission, acting “as an independent commission in the judicial branch,” to establish sentencing policies and practices. It’s the role of Congress to decide wither to revise or disapprove of the commission’s proposed amendments to sentencing guidelines.
“We do not discharge our statutory duty until we vote on a proposed amendment, and Congress, by law, has until Nov. 1 to decide whether our proposed amendment should become effective.,” Pryor said.
The Sentencing Commission met Thursday in Washington. It sent Congress amended sentencing guidelines involving drug-related convictions.
During the process of drafting the amended guidelines, Holder testified to the commissioner earlier this year. But then directed federal prosecutors to proceed as if the new guidelines were adopted, essentially superseding both the judiciary and Congress.
“I appreciate the attorney general’s personal appearance before the commission last month and his helpful comments in support of this amendment, but I hope that we can avoid, in the future, the kind of improper instruction that he sent federal prosecutors before we voted on the amendment,” he said.