Gridland: an allegorical critique of federal sentencing.

AuthorLuna, Erik

Only in Wonderland.

--Scalia, J. (1)

The world is broad and wide. 2

--A. Square (2)


It is no overstatement to say that the Supreme Court's recent decision in United States v. Booker was one of the most widely anticipated cases in years. (3) Six months earlier, (4) the Court had struck down a state sentencing scheme that appeared virtually identical to the approach used in federal courts, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines--a highly complex set of rules promulgated by an administrative agency pursuant to congressional legislation. The Guidelines dictate narrow ranges of punishment (e.g., forty-six to fifty-seven months imprisonment) based on the underlying crime, the defendant's criminal history, and various factors considered by the trial judge after conviction. With the specter that the federal regime was now unconstitutional, cries of panic could be heard in the halls of Congress and courthouses across the nation. Lawmakers claimed that "the criminal justice system has begun to run amok," (5) "crumbl[ing] the very foundation of the Federal system of sentencing guidelines" (6) and "threaten[ing] to clog our Federal courts with procedural and constitutional nightmares." (7) Not to be outdone, one government brief likened the situation to "Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo during a level 10 earthquake," (8) while at oral argument the U.S. Solicitor General referred to the "carnage and wreckage" in the federal system. (9) Needless to say, much of the bench and bar held its collective breath as the Justices deliberated.

On January 12, 2005, the Supreme Court issued a deeply divided decision, producing two separate majority opinions, one on the merits and the other on an appropriate remedy. In the first opinion, the Booker Court held that the Guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment by requiring post-conviction judicial factfinding that could increase the potential punishment for federal offenders. (10) To solve this constitutional infirmity, the second opinion excised a pair of statutory provisions, rendering the Guidelines advisory rather than mandatory in a trial court's sentencing determinations. (11) The public response to the decision was nearly instantaneous, with some pundits and politicians expressing doom and gloom, (12) but many scholars taking a more tempered approach, recognizing that the case "creates more questions than it answers." (13) Most notably, the federal courts must now decide on the level of deference to accord the Guidelines at sentencing, from near-perfect compliance to total disregard, as well as an assortment of appellate issues raised by the Supreme Court's ruling. In turn, the first wave of Booker-related scholarship has delved into the minutiae of the evolving Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, from the history and importance of the jury trial right to the doctrinal validity of the Court's decision and its implications for the future, particularly how the Guidelines regime might be saved and/or improved. (14)

All of this is important and commendable, but I have a somewhat different perspective. Since their adoption, the Guidelines have undermined the legitimacy of federal sentencing, largely preventing the exercise of moral judgment by trial courts. The punishment process dehumanizes the offense and offender by permitting consideration of only a few factors and banning all others, mechanically inserting these variables into a sentencing formula and then scoring punishment on a two-dimensional grid. Moreover, the Guidelines' complexity can bewilder both professionals and ordinary citizens, especially those concerned about a particular crime or criminal, and the hypertechnical quality of the system generates punishment discrepancies that are neither explicitly justified nor obviously justifiable. Worse yet, the inflexibility of this regime has shifted sentencing authority from trial courts to prosecutors through their exclusive power over charging and plea decisions, while also inspiring judges and practitioners to collude in a massive scheme to evade the Guidelines' rigid strictures. All told, federal lawmakers and "a sort of junior-varsity Congress" (15) created a massive sentencing machine, cranking out a mechanical body of law precluding the kind of moral judgment required of any legitimate system deciding the fate of human beings. To me, at least, the Supreme Court's most recent decision may provide an indirect opportunity to reconsider the virtues of such an approach to punishment.

In his dissent in Booker, Justice Scalia lambasted part of the decision as possible "[o]nly in Wonderland" (16)--a literary analogy that, in fact, has been used many times over the years in reference to federal sentencing, with one judge arguing that "these guidelines go far too far" in creating a surreal world "like Alice in Wonderland," (17) and another blasting a particular sentence as conceivable "[o]nly in the world of Alice in Wonderland, in which up is down and down is up, and words lose their real meaning." (18) I would like to offer another literary comparison, one that will be less familiar to the legal profession but in the end, I believe, better fits the problems inherent in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. It is the allegory of Flatland, a witty depiction of a two-dimensional world that has some striking similarities to the limited dimensionality of punishment in federal courts.

Part I provides a brief synopsis of Flatland, its inhabitants, and its rules. The article then suggests some troubling parallels between this fictional realm and the very real domain of federal sentencing, a world that I will call "Gridland." Part II analyzes the Supreme Court's opinions in Booker and the lower court's recent interpretations, offering the possibility that this landmark case and its progeny may indirectly challenge the two-dimensional approach to punishment embodied in the Guidelines. Part III argues, however, that the Guidelines' many problems may have been moderated but not eliminated by Booker, as the language and practice of formulaic sentencing still reign in U.S. district courts. Moreover, Part IV suggests that it is yet to be seen whether Booker alleviates the fundamental flaw in the Guidelines, the purging of moral judgment in punishment. Finally, Part V provides some thoughts for the future of federal sentencing in a world beyond Gridland.


    Written anonymously in 1884, Flatland." A Romance of Many Dimensions has never gone out of print, with more than a dozen editions currently in circulation. To this day, the book is "piled in heaps at the front of the Harvard Coop" (19) and continues to inspire countless "sequels, elaborations and imitations." (20) The originally unnamed author, Edwin A. Abbott, was a serious scholar and theologian of the Victorian Age, the headmaster of various British schools and an authority on Shakespeare, Pope, and Bacon, as well as a popular nineteenth-century preacher and advocate for social reform. (21) Although he penned Flatland as a literary jeu d'esprit for his own amusement and that of his readers, Abbott presented an engaging primer on geometry and a nearly painless initiation to the concepts of dimensionality. (22) Isaac Asimov notes that "it is probably the best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions," (23) while New York Times critic Edward Rothstein suggests that "it may be no exaggeration to say [Flatland] has been read by every self-respecting physicist, mathematician and science-fiction writer." (24)

    Yet few attorneys, jurists, and law professors have ever heard of the monograph-length work (and until relatively recently, yours truly would rank among the otherwise oblivious). This is a shame, not because there is a need for legal professionals to bone up on their mathematics (which may well be true (25)), but because Flatland offers an evocative Swiftian commentary on class hierarchy, orthodoxy, and hypocrisy, and implicitly calls upon the reader to challenge accepted ideologies and mechanical processes that have been handed down from generation to generation. "Abbott's original intention was to give a portrait of transcendence, to show how, through our imagination, we might be 'lifted' out of narrow conceptions," (26) providing "a social satire that carries readers beyond conventional ideas and surface appearances to an appreciation of new worlds--those of higher-dimensional space." (27) Approached with an open legal mind, this sardonic allegory seems particularly pointed and fitting when juxtaposed against any mechanistic, dehumanizing process, including the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.


      Abbott's story begins with a description of "Flatland," a world that is, quite literally, flat--a two-dimensional plane in the style of "a vast sheet of paper" (28)--populated by similarly flat but anthropomorphized geometric figures. (29) The thin dimensions of existence limit the inhabitant's perception and mobility; there is no rising above or sinking below this planar world but only observation and movement within the confines of its surface. As a socio-political matter, the standing of each character is determined by the number and regularity of his sides and angles. Isosceles triangles constitute the lowest class of workers and soldiers, while equilateral triangles belong to the slightly superior middle class. Professionals and gentlemen are, respectively, squares and pentagons (for instance, the story's narrator--"A. Square" (30)--is a square and, appropriately enough, a lawyer). Flatland's nobility begins with hexagons, "and from thence rising in the number of their sides till they receive the honourable title of Polygonal, or many-sided." (31) The ruling class is composed of figures whose myriad sides have become virtually indistinguishable from a circle, the ultimate geometric figure in Flatland. The privileges of the circular class, who are held in the highest esteem and...

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