U.S. Eleventh Circuit - The FindLaw 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Senior Judge Fay, Newcomer Martin, Get Heated in Sentencing Case

Rarely do you see judges use harsh language towards each other in opinions. You'll see phrases like "respectfully dissent," along with a lot of deferential disagreement, but rarely will you see descriptors like, "astonishing," "outrageous," and "totally unfounded" tossed back-and-forth to describe each other's conclusions.

But that's exactly what we have here, in an otherwise unremarkable sentencing case involving an undocumented immigrant who made an illegal reentry after being deported for a domestic violence conviction. Senior Judge Peter Fay and Obama-appointee Judge Beverly Martin exchanged verbal jabs after Judge Martin, in dissent, accused the circuit court of only deferring to state courts' interpretations of law when it favored stiffer sentences.

An Otherwise Ordinary Case: Enhanced Sentence for Violent Offender

A defendant who has illegally reentered the United States faces an enhanced penalty if he or she has previously been convicted of an "aggravated felony," defined as a crime of violence for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year.

Roberto Garza-Mendez, a Mexican citizen raised largely in the Atlanta area, was convicted of violating a Georgia family violence statute in 2007 after he struck his girlfriend. The sentence, on paper, was for 12 months in jail, but the judge allowed Garza-Mendez to serve only 30 hours in prison, with the remainder served via probation.

The statue indicates that suspended sentences don't change the outcome: if the paper says 12 months or more, it counts. Probation, however, is a different story, and does not count towards the 12-month mark.

Garza-Mendez's attorney cleverly went to the state court and had a different state judge issue a written interpretation of what the sentence was: 30 hours of jail time, followed by about 12 months of probation.

The district court didn't buy it, nor did the majority here.

"[T]he August 30, 2007, sentence could not be any clearer -- Garza-Mendez was sentenced to '12 months' of 'confinement,' despite the subsequent state judge's interpretation ... This was the sentence imposed irrespective of any suspension of the confinement term."

The plain text of the sentence (and statute) controls, and must be taken, on face value, to see if it triggers the enhancement.

As Judge Fay notes, "The original state sentence plainly speaks for itself but then must be interpreted under federal law in federal court concerning a federal crime." In other words, no deference is due to a "strategically timed," clarification order by a judge who wasn't even involved in the original case.

Judge Martin: You Only Defer to State Courts When it Hurts Defendants

Emphasizing the fact that attacking or clarifying a state court sentence in federal court was explicitly forbidden, and that defendants are actually supposed to go to state courts for clarifications, Judge Martin took to the offensive:

"[T]he Majority's lack of deference here is striking because, in my experience, it has always been the practice of this Court to exercise great deference to State Court judgments in criminal cases, especially when comity bars defendants from obtaining relief in federal court. Surely it is true that equal justice requires us to show deference and comity to State Court judgments in all situations, whether it serves to help or hurt a defendant in our Court."

Judge Fay was not pleased by the allegations and insinuations, calling them, "off the mark," and stating, "The dissent's charges impugning the integrity of our court are both outrageous and totally unfounded." He also noted, quite logically, that when defense to state court opinions helps defendants, "the overwhelming probabilities are there would be no appeals."

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