Greenlaw v. United States

PETITIONER: Michael Greenlaw, aka Mikey
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals Eleventh Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 07-330
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 554 US 237 (2008)
GRANTED: Jan 04, 2008
ARGUED: Apr 15, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 23, 2008

Amy Howe - on behalf of the Petitioner
Deanne E. Maynard - on behalf of the Respondent
Jay T. Jorgensen - as amicus curiae, in support of the Judgment below

Facts of the case

When Michael Greenlaw was convicted of several drug and firearm offenses in federal court, the prosecution argued that he should receive a mandatory minimum sentencing hike because he had been convicted of two counts under the federal gun law. The district judge, in a decision incorrect under the Supreme Court's holding in Deal v. United States, reasoned that the mandatory minimum should not apply because the second offense was not the result of a separate, pre-existing indictment.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit vacated the sentence and sent the case back to the district court with instructions to apply the mandatory minimum. In seeking certiorari, Greenlaw argued that the Eight Circuit had ignored substantial high court precedent holding that an appellate court may not order a higher criminal sentence without a government request to do so. Greenlaw further sought clarification of two related issues: whether the lack of a government appeal deprives the appellate court of authority as a matter of jurisdiction or merely as a custom of practice, and whether such appellate court discretion is allowable under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b), which allows courts to consider plain errors even when the parties do not raise them. The Solicitor General, while agreeing with Greenlaw that the Eighth Circuit erred, urged the Court to grant certiorari and remand the case for further briefing in order to give the appellate court an opportunity to revisit its holding.


Do federal appellate courts have the authority to hike a criminal defendant's sentence in the absence of a government request to do so?

Media for Greenlaw v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 15, 2008 in Greenlaw v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 2008 in Greenlaw v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in case 07-330, Greenlaw versus United States.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Petitioner, Michael Greenlaw was convicted of several drug and firearm felonies, and was sentenced to imprisonment for nearly 37 years.

In calculating his total sentence, the District Court made a mistake overlooking a controlling decision of this Court and despite the Government's objection, the District Court imposed a 10-year sentence on account that carried a 25-year mandatory minimum term.

Greenlaw appealed urging among other things that his sentence was too high.

Anything more than 15 years total, he argued, would be excessive.

The Court of Appeals rejected all of Greenlaw's arguments but it did not stop there.

Although, the Government had not asked for a higher sentence by appealing or cross-appealing, the Court of Appeals on its initiative held that Greenlaw's sentence was too low and ordered the District Court to add 15 years to his prison term.

We vacate the Court of Appeals' judgment and hold that because the Government did not appeal or cross-appeal, Greenlaw’s sentence should not have been enlarged.

In both civil and criminal cases in the first instance, and not appeal, courts in the United States generally followed the principle of party presentation, that means the parties and not the court frame the issues for decision and the courts play a reactive role, they serve as impartial arbiters of matters, the parties present to them.

The cross-appeal rule, pivotal in this case, is both informed by, and illustrative of the party presentation principle.

Under that rule, appellate courts may not reach out to correct the sentencing error when the Government has not invited such error correction by appealing or cross-appealing.

In other words, it takes a cross-appeal to justify a remedy in favor of the appellee.

This Court has called the cross-appeal rule inveterate and certain, and has in no case, ordered an exception to it.

No exception is warranted here.

A provision Congress enacted guides our decision, Congress instructed that the Government may not pursue an appeal of a criminal sentence without the personal approval of the Attorney General, the Solicitor General or the Solicitor General's designated deputy.

This provision gives the top representatives of the United States in litigation, the prerogative to seek or forgo appellate correction of sentencing errors, however plain they may be.

We would diminish the force of that instruction while we permit appellate courts to overwrite the assessment of those Justice Department officers.

For these reasons and others detailed in our opinion, we conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in ordering Greenlaw's sentence increased even though the Government did not ask for a higher sentence by pursuing a cross-appeal.

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens has joined in full and Justice Breyer has joined in part.