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Sentencing Commission Vetting Echoes GOP Grilling of Jackson

June 8, 2022, 10:55 PM

Questions about child pornography sentencing that Republicans focused on during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings recurred Wednesday for a US Sentencing Commission nominee.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who led the attack against Jackson, directed a similar line of questions at Laura Mate during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Mate is director of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona.

The hearing on Joe Biden’s seven nominees to the commission comes after years without the quorum it needs to develop guidance. As the law requires, the slate of nominees announced in May is bipartisan, with four Democratic and three Republican commissioners.

Hawley Questions

Hawley focused on a lettersigned by Mate, a Democratic nominee, that the Federal Public and Community Defenders sent to the Sentencing Commission in 2013 commenting on a proposal.

Hawley said that letter argued sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenders were too severe and asked Mate if it was still her view.

Mate replied that the letter represented the defender view at the time and said she would have to research to formulate a position.

“I don’t have an opinion on that right now, senator. I would want to look at the data and get up to speed on where things are,” Mate said before Hawley interjected.

“You had an opinion in 2013, so now you’re saying you don’t have one?,” Hawley asked.

“I’m saying that I would want to offer you an informed opinion and things change over time. That was a long time ago. I certain want to look at,” Mate said before Hawley again cut her off again.

“Indeed, they do,” Hawley said.

He went on to call the letter “alarming” and eventually said he wouldn’t support Mate. “I think frankly, your nomination is indicative of where this administration is on its soft-on-crime policies,” Hawley said.

Hawley’s questions were immediately met with a rebuke from Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who said the exchange was reminiscent of Hawley’s questioning of Jackson.

Hawley and Durbin then sparred over a bill proposed by Hawley, which Durbin suggested wasn’t taking the matter seriously enough.

Commission Focus

The hearing previewed some issues that may be a focus for the new commission if the nominees are confirmed.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) noted that without a quorum, the commission hasn’t been able to update guidance to reflect changes made in the bipartisan criminal justice reform law the First Step Act, which he cosponsored.

Grassley asked the commissioners to commit to updating the guidance to reflect Congress’s intent when drafting the law. All of the nominees said they had no reservations about doing that. He also asked whether addressing guidelines that circuits have interpreted differently, creating “circuit splits” would be a priority.

“If I am confirmed, I will work with the commissioners to see what will be the priorities of the commission,” said US Judge Carlton Reeves, a Democratic pick nominated to be chair of the Sentencing Commission. “But I can assure you that one of those will be to make sure that we deal with the circuit splits because that is a troubling matter.”

Reeves, a judge on the Southern District of Mississippi, would be the commission’s first Black chair if confirmed.

Under questions from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), John Gleeson, a Democratic nominee who served as a US judge on the Eastern District of New York for 22 years, predicted that one of “the next big things” in criminal justice reform would be looking at the consequences of convictions, such as unemployment.

“There’s plenty of current big things in criminal justice. I believe expunction and other forms of assisting people in dealing with collateral consequences is hopefully one of the next big things in criminal justice,” said Gleeson, currently partner at Debevoise & Plimpton where he practices trial and appellate law.

The other nominees at the hearing were:

  • Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, to be a vice chair and commissioner;
  • Claire McCusker Murray, who served as principal deputy associate attorney general in the Trump Justice Department nominated to be a vice chair and commissioner;
  • Claria Horn Boom, a Trump-appointed US district judge in Kentucky nominated to be a commissioner; and
  • Candice Wong, an assistant US attorney in Washington nominated to be a commissioner.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com