It’s hard to imagine a less contentious or more innocent word than “and.”
But how to interpret that simple conjunction has prompted a complicated legal fight that lands in the Supreme Court on Oct. 2, the first day of its new term. What the justices decide could affect thousands of prison sentences each year.
Federal courts across the country disagree about whether the word, as it is used in a bipartisan 2018 criminal justice overhaul, indeed means “and” or whether it means “or.” Even an appellate panel that upheld a longer sentence called the structure of the provision “perplexing.”
The Supreme Court has stepped in to settle the dispute.
It’s the kind of task the justices — and maybe their English teachers — love. The case requires the close parsing of a part of a federal statute, the First Step Act, which aimed in part to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion.
In particular, the justices will be examining a so-called safety valve provision that is meant to spare low-level, nonviolent drug dealers who agree to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors from having to face often longer mandatory sentences.
It’s much more than an exercise in diagramming a sentence. Nearly 6,000 people convicted of drug trafficking in the 2021 budget year alone are in the pool of those who might be eligible for reduced sentences, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Overall, more than 10,000 people sentenced since the law took effect could be affected, according to Douglas Berman, an expert on sentencing at Ohio State University’s law school.
The provision lists three criteria for allowing judges to forgo a mandatory minimum sentence that basically look to the severity of prior crimes. Congress did not make it easy by writing the section in the negative so that a judge can exercise discretion in sentencing if a defendant “does not have” three sorts of criminal history.
The question is how to determine eligibility for the safety valve — whether any of the conditions is enough to disqualify someone or whether it takes all three to be ineligible.
Lawyers for Mark Pulsifer, the inmate whose challenge the court will hear, say all three conditions must apply before the longer sentence can be imposed. The government says just one condition is enough to merit the mandatory minimum.
You can read the full article at NBC News.