|Syllabus ||Dissent |
[ Breyer ]
[ Thomas ]
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
UNITED STATES v. LaBONTE
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the first circuit
Title 28 U.S.C. § 994(h) directs the United States Sentencing Commission to "assure" that its Sentencing Guidelines specify a prison sentence "at or near the maximum term authorized for categories of" adult offenders who commit their third felony drug offense or violent crime. The Commission sought to implement this directive in its "Career Offender Guideline," Guidelines Manual §4B1.1. That Guideline initially failed to designate which "maximum term" a sentencing court should use when federal law establishes a basic statutory maximum for persons convicted of a particular offense, but also provides an enhanced penalty for career offenders convicted of that same offense. The District Court used such an enhancement in sentencing respondents, each of whom was convicted of federal drug felonies and qualified as a career offender under §4B1.1. After the First Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences, the Commission adopted Amendment 506, which, inter alia, altered §4B1.1's commentary to preclude consideration of statutory sentence enhancements. One District Court Judge found that Amendment 506 was contrary to §994(h) and refused to reduce the sentences of respondents Dyer and Hunnewell, but another such judge upheld the amendment and reduced respondent LaBonte's prison term. The First Circuit consolidated the ensuing appeals and held that §4B1.1, as construed under Amendment 506, was a reasonable implementation of §994(h)'s directive.
Held: Amendment 506 is inconsistent with §994(h)'s plain and unambiguous language and therefore must give way. Stinson v. United States, 508 U.S. 36, 38. Assuming that Congress said what it meant in drafting §994(h), and giving the words used their "ordinary meaning," Moskal v. United States, 498 U.S. 103, 108, the phrase "maximum term authorized" must be read to include all applicable statutory sentencing enhancements. Respondents' contrary argument that the phrase refers only to the highest penalty authorized by the offense of conviction, excluding any enhancements, has little merit. Their assertion that §994(h) is ambiguous is based, at least in part, on a strained and flawed construction of the phrase "categories of defendants." Their claim that Amendment 506 satisfies Congress' mandate to sentence repeat offenders "at or near" the maximum sentence authorized is also rejected. Although the phrase "at or near" unquestionably permits a certain degree of flexibility for upward and downward departures and adjustments, it does not license the Commission to select as the relevant "maximum term" a sentence that is different from the congressionally authorized maximum term. Finally, this Court is unmoved by respondents' heavy reliance on the Commission's inapposite assertions that Amendment 506 avoids unwarranted double counting of prior offenses and eliminates unwarranted disparity associated with variations in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in seeking enhanced penalties. Pp. 6-11.
Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens and Ginsburg, JJ., joined.