New York's Federal Judges Protest Sentencing Law Changes

New York's federal judges are speaking out against Congress' recent changes to federal sentencing law.

The Feeney Amendment, tacked onto the Amber Alert bill, is part of the PROTECT act. It limits the instances in which judges can grant downward departures from the federal sentencing guidelines, stripping the judges of their ability to impose individualized sentences when they deem it appropriate. It also creates a very objectionable reporting system, which is likely to be used as a blacklist of judges.

Like the Patriot Act, the law was passed without hearings and without meaningful debate. It was passed over the objections of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Judicial Conference, the ABA and the majority of prosecutors and defense lawyers who deal with the guidelines every day.

One federal judge, John Martin, has taken early retirement in protest of the "unjust nature of the sentencing process." Second Circuit Judge John M. Walker Jr. and 26 other judges from around the country have issued a statement calling for repeal of the new law.

And in perhaps the boldest criticism of the law, another federal judge in Brooklyn, Sterling Johnson Jr., who was New York City's special narcotics prosecutor from 1975 until 1991, recently issued a wide-ranging order that directly contradicts the law's provision granting Congress more direct access, without the need for judicial permission, to a variety of case documents. Judge Johnson placed a blanket seal on all such documents in cases before him, forbidding Congress to examine these materials without his approval.

It's not just the liberal judges that object to the law. Judge John F. Keenan, a Reagan appointee says, "Even I recognize that this administration has taken a step too far."

We're glad that these judges refuse to be intimidated by Congress. The Feeney Amendment violates the separation of powers doctrine and in essence creates a blacklist of judges who won't go along. We hope that judges around the country follow the example of these outspoken New York jurists and "just say no" to Feeney.

Sen. Edward Kennedy has introduced S. 1086, The JUDGES Act, to repeal Feeney. Contact your Senators and urge support for the bill.

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