New opinion — En banc opinion on preserving procedural sentencing error

The en banc court today ruled that, going forward, a defendant must object to procedural errors at sentencing in order to avoid plain error review, superseding a 2008 panel ruling to the contrary and, according to the majority, splitting with CA4 (and maybe CA7). But the court applied the old rule to the case before it and reversed for resentencing.

The case is United States v. Flores-Mejia. Opinion by Roth, joined by McKee, Rendell, Ambro, Fisher, Chagares, Jordan, Hardiman, and Vanaskie, and by Fuentes as to the need to apply the old rule and how it applies. Greenaway dissented, joined by Smith, Shwartz, and Sloviter, and by Fuentes in part. Arguing counsel were AFD Robert Epstein for the defendant and AUSA Robert Zauzmer for the government.

Update: I have a few thoughts.

First, although there’s a circuit split here, my hunch is cert is unlikely. I’m skeptical that there are 5 votes on the current Court for the dissent’s view, no matter how persuasive its textual analysis of FRCrP 51 may be.

Second, I find the court’s application of its procedural reasonableness rule (the ‘old rule’ above) baffling. The standard is that sentencing courts must “acknowledge and respond to” adequately presented sentencing arguments, and failure to give “meaningful consideration” to such arguments is error. Here, the court heard the argument and replied “Ok, thanks. Anything else?” I guess that might count as ‘acknowledging,’ but how could it be ‘responding to?’ How does that show meaningful consideration? The majority says it is error but “it’s a close issue.” Close? How much further from a meaningful response is possible? Yet the dissenters go further: except for Fuentes, they would affirm. I don’t understand it. If you’re not going to apply a prior holding, don’t you have to overrule it? If judges don’t care about this sort of thing, who will? (Answer: nerds like me.) Anyhow, today’s ruling largely moots the whole point anyway.

Third, the judge split here is interesting. The majority’s core holding is pro-government, so, given a split, one might expect the conservatives in the majority and the liberals in dissent. But McKee, Rendell, Ambro, and Vanaskie all joined the majority, while Smith joined the dissent. Judicial economy was central to the majority’s reasoning, while the language of the controlling federal rule was not, and that may help explain the voting.

Finally, the court applied the old rule here because it wasn’t fair to punish a lawyer for failing to make an objection that then-settled law said wasn’t required. So what about defendants sentenced today? Tomorrow? Do CA3 judges think that lawyers who do federal sentencings read their new opinions on a daily basis? I bet it will be weeks or even months before the word of Flores-Mejia really gets around. Interesting practical problem.

Update: Elisa Long discusses Flores-Mejia in this post on the Federal Defender Third Circuit Blog.