Sunday, September 5, 2010

Judge Rosenbaum and the Guidelines Dust-Up

As James Rosenbaum's tenture as chief U.S. district judge in Minnesota wound down, the Star Tribune lavished considerable attention on the respected jurist. A glowing article in June 2008 lauded his wit and wisdom. A little over two years later, in August 2010, with his retirement near, the Strib sent the judge on his way to private practice with abundant praise for his Renaissance man qualities.

In the August 2010 piece, a prominent Twin Cities criminal defense attorney named Joe Friedberg recounted a story about the way Rosenbaum handled the sentencing of a defendant who was facing 121 to 141 months under the federal sentencing guidelines. Rosenbaum gave Friedberg's client an even ten years. "The last thing a defendant should have to do while doing time is divide," he told Friedberg.

Though I don't know whether this story is apocryphal or not, it does point to the most controversial episode of Rosenbaum's career on the federal bench: his dust-up with the Republican Congressional leadership over the status of the federal sentencing guidelines. For years, federal judges had been appallaed by the unfairness of the guidelines. The guidelines, or sentencing rules, were commonly thought to be mandatory, taking away judges' discretion and forcing them to impose sentences that were often terribly unjust in individual cases.

Rosenbaum was not alone in speaking out against the guidelines. But in 2002 he became a target for the Republican leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, which threatened to subpoena his sentencing records. This was a surprising turn of events for a Reagan appointee who had once been active in Republican politics. Rosenbaum's long-time colleague Ann Montgomery told the Star Trib that these were dark days for her friend, but that the experience made him a fuller, more compassionate person.

In 2005, Rosenbaum was vindicated when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Blakely case that the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory.

Now, he's riding off into the sunset, ready for more world travel and able to command fees as an arbitrator that will help pay college tuition for his grandchildren. Renaissance man, indeed.

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