Mistretta v. United States

PETITIONER:John Mistretta
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Residence of John Mistretta

DOCKET NO.: 87-7028
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)

CITATION: 488 US 361 (1989)
ARGUED: Oct 05, 1988
DECIDED: Jan 18, 1989

Alan B. Morrison – Argued the cause for the petitioner in No. 87-7028 and the respondent in No. 87-1904
Charles Fried – Argued the cause for the United States in both cases
Paul M. Bator – Argued the cause for the United States Sentencing Commission as amicus curiae urging affirmance

Facts of the case

Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. This Commission was to attack the wide discrepancies in sentencing by federal court judges by creating sentencing guidelines for all federal offenses. It was to be part of the judicial branch, with members appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. John Mistretta (convicted of three counts of selling cocaine) claimed that the Act violated the delegation-of-powers principle by giving the Commission “excessive legislative powers.” This case was decided together with United States v. Mistretta.


Did the Act violate the nondelegation doctrine of the Constitution?

Media for Mistretta v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 05, 1988 in Mistretta v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 18, 1989 in Mistretta v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 87-7028, and a companion case in Mistretta against the United States will be announced by Justice Blackmun.

Harry A. Blackmun:

These cases concern the constitutionality of the Sentencing Reformat of 1984, and that Act created the United States Sentencing Commission as an independent body in the Judicial Branch with power to promulgate binding sentencing guidelines.

Guidelines have been issued and they are challenged here.

Similar challenges in Federal Courts throughout the country have resulted in diverse and opposing rulings.

And because of that conflict in the great importance of the issues in the administration of this country’s criminal law, we granted the respective petitions of defendant, Mistretta, and of the United States for certiorari before judgment in the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, a too long opinion I have here, we hold that the sentencing guidelines are constitutional and specifically, that Congress did not delegate excessive legislative power to the Commission and did not violate the separation of powers principled by placing the Commission in the Judicial Branch or by requiring federal judges to serve on the Commission and to share their authority with non-judges or by empowering the President to appoint Commission members and to remove them for cause.

Therefore, in this litigation, we affirm the judgment of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

Justice Brennan joins all of the opinion except footnote 11; Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion.