Pepper: United States Supreme Court Will Hear Arguments Next Week Regarding Consideration of Rehabilitation upon Resentencing

Next Monday, the federal Supreme Court will hear arguments in Pepper v. United States. In this fascinating case, the Court will consider whether judges can take a prisoner’s efforts at rehabilitation into consideration when that prisoner is resentenced. This case is interesting both because the government has changed its stance and because of the uncommon circumstance that Mr. Pepper was resentenced to three additional years in prison after four years of freedom.

Mr. Pepper pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and was sentenced to 24 months in prison, although the Sentencing Guidelines range was 97 to 127 months. The government successfully appealed that sentence, but the judge resentenced Mr. Pepper to the same amount of time, in part because of the prisoner’s efforts at rehabilitation following the first sentence. Prosecutors again appealed, arguing that such a consideration was an abuse of discretion. The Eighth Circuit agreed. Upon resentencing by a different judge, Mr. Pepper was ordered to return to prison to serve an additional 41 months.

After successfully appealing Mr. Pepper’s below-guidelines sentence twice, the Department of Justice has switched sides and is supporting Mr. Pepper’s contention on appeal to the Supreme Court that rehabilitation should be taken into account. As reported in this Des Moines Register article, when she was Solicitor General, Justice Kagan sided with Mr. Pepper, arguing that court rules do not prohibit “a court from considering at resentencing a defendant’s efforts at rehabilitation undertaken after his initial sentencing.” Rather, a federal law “specifically instructs sentencing courts to consider ‘the history and characteristics of the defendant.'” Justice Kagan will not take part in the Supreme Court’s decision.

The Court appointed a private lawyer as amicus curie to defend the Eighth Circuit’s decision below. The appointment of amici to defend the appellate court’s decision is discussed in this Stanford Law Review note by Brian Goldman, which is summarized here at ScotusBlog.

Briefs and the Eighth Circuit’s decision below are available here.