Stupid Sentencing Tricks

A Minnesota judge is targeted for speaking out against federal drug-sentencing guidelines

Rosenbaum did not respond to interview requests. But according to Justice
Department statistics, Rosenbaum's sentencing practices were about the same as those of his Minnesota colleagues--and federal judges in Minnesota actually imposed sentences longer than the national median from 1998-2002.

The amendment's critics suspect it was not Rosenbaum's courtroom decisions that got him in hot water so much as his willingness to speak out. "Chief Judge Rosenbaum's candor and insight was not what the congressional subcommittee wanted to hear," the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers complained in a letter accompanying the group's resolution condemning the Senate's attempts to subpoena the judge and his files. "The subcommittee issued a 22-page report that did not scruple to accuse Judge Rosenbaum of perjuring himself before, and willfully misleading, the committee.... The [organization's resolution] condemns the congressional bullyragging of Judge Rosenbaum, and forthrightly asserts the doctrines of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary."

Judiciary Committee leaders have agreed to postpone issuing any subpoenas while a compromise is sought. But the fact that they persist frightens lawyers who practice in federal courts. "Just how far out on the fringes these conservatives are is illustrated by the fact that one of them, Tom DeLay, labeled Judge Rosenbaum as part of the 'liberal legal establishment,'" complains Minneapolis defense attorney Jim Ostgard. "'Liberal judge' is an oxymoron."

"Most local criminal defense lawyers would prefer to try their cases with other judges, and I myself have been threatened with contempt more than once while trying a case before him," he continues. "He is definitely not soft on crime, definitely not a bleeding heart. He was the first federal judge in Minnesota to impose a sentence of life without parole, and just last fall he imposed three life sentences without flinching, for the young men convicted of killing the little girl caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout in St. Paul in 1996.

"Without question, however, he is also a judge who is totally conscientious about doing the right thing when it comes to sentencing, and he does exactly what a good judge must do by looking carefully at the individual facts of a case for guidance in sentencing. He has refused to let a bunch of politicians sitting a thousand miles away sentence people by remote control, and I have great respect and regard for his sense of fairness and justice at every stage of a criminal case.

"The subpoena for Judge Rosenbaum's records is unprecedented, is meant to be intimidating, and I hope the judge puts up a vigorous fight," Ostgard concludes. "The remedy for an improper sentence is appeal, not an inquisition by a bunch of cynical politicians looking for political advantage. Judge Rosenbaum's sentences are usually upheld by the appeals court. That should be enough said."

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