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Amicus Briefs

U.S. v. Vargas

NCLA filed an amicus brief in United States v. Vargas, urging the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to decide that Stinson deference should not be applied when it results in a more severe criminal sentence. NCLA argued that existing Fifth Circuit precedent followed flawed reasoning and caused courts to defer reflexively to United States Sentencing Commission commentary, even when Sentencing Guidelines are unambiguous. Stinson deference endangers individual liberty, compromises the independent judiciary, and institutes judicial bias.

A 1993 Supreme Court decision, Stinson v. United States, commands federal judges to defer to the commentary of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, even though the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s commentary does not receive an up-or-down vote from Congress, as the Guidelines themselves do. Judges who defer, and thereby assign weight to a non-judicial entity’s interpretation of the law when imposing criminal sentences, abandon their duty of independent judgment in violation of Article III and their judicial oaths. The Supreme Court cut back on the uncritical and broad deference granted to agencies’ interpretations of their own rules in a 2019 decision, Kisor v. Wilkie. Following that decision, the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits have recognized that Kisor only permits deference to genuinely ambiguous rules, so they no longer apply Stinson deference to unambiguous Guidelines. The rule of lenity, principles of due process, and the independence of the judicial office all call on courts to interpret the Sentencing Guidelines for themselves, without deference to the Commission’s commentary.

Mark Chenoweth
President and Chief Legal Officer
Kara Rollins
Litigation Counsel

Ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

July 24, 2023 | Read More

Unopposed Motion To File a Brief In Support of Defendant-Appellant and Amicus Curiae

September 30, 2022 | Read More


NCLA Amicus Brief Encourages Fifth Circuit to Reject Judicial Deference to Sentencing Commission

October 3, 2022 | Read More



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