Supreme Court hears arguments in two matters
Supreme Court hears arguments in two matters

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard arguments in two matters today; Hughes v. United States and Koons v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials].

Hughes [argument transcript, PDF] asks how attorneys should determine the precedential effect of Supreme Court opinions that end in a plurality—a term used to refer to cases in which no opinion receives a majority of five votes. In Marks v. United States [opinion], the Supreme Court previously adopted the “narrowest grounds test,” which explicitly states that:

[w]hen a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgment[] on the narrowest grounds.

At the heart of the matter lies a debate as to how to deduce the “narrowest” holding of a plurality.

Specifically, the parties argued as to what is the narrowest holding in the matter of Freeman v. United States [opinion], a Supreme Court decision which resulted in a 4-1-4 split. The petitioner argued that Freeman presented no binding rule under the Marks narrowest grounds test and therefore the circuit courts were free to adopt their own. The respondent, on the other hand, argued that the court should disregard petitioner’s claim that Freeman has no precedential value and argued that binding effect should be given to the “opinion that leads to the results that [are] favored by a majority of the Court,” and that, moreover, the application of that portion of the opinion must also be supported by the reasoning of a majority of the justices.

Koons [argument transcript, PDF] asks whether a defendant who already received a sentence below the mandatory minimum after having aided the government is entitled to a further reduction in sentence when the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowered advisory sentencing guidelines. Presently, the law allows for a modification of a prison term for a “defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.” The petitioner argued that his was “based on” a “sentencing range,” as his sentence was already lower than the statutory minimum and is thus entitled to further reduction under law. The government responded by arguing that the sentence was in fact based on the sentencing guidelines and thus falls outside of the scope of when a defendant is entitled to additional reductions to their sentence.

Interestingly, the last time the court spoke on the interpretation of this “based on” language at issue in Koons was in Freeman, the same case at issue in Hughes.