Kagan Sides with Biden, Tightens Grip on First Step Act Relief

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, in a 6-3 decision, dealt a blow to criminal defendants seeking relief under the First Step Act of 2018, a tough-on-crime measure that caused quite the stir among the justices. Kagan’s majority opinion, a win for the Biden administration, centered on the interpretation of the “safety valve” provision, which allows judges to bypass mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders based on their criminal history. The crux of the issue in Pulsifer v. United States revolved around the interpretation of the word “and” in the 2018 law and whether it should be construed as “and” or “or.”

The Justice Department argued that the word “and” should be read more leniently, akin to “or,” disqualifying defendants with a certain number of criminal-history points. The majority of the Supreme Court sided with this argument, with Justice Kagan clarifying that defendants must meet all three conditions in the provision to be eligible for safety-valve relief.

Joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, Kagan’s decision drew dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Gorsuch’s dissent vehemently opposed the government’s argument, rejecting attempts to rebrand it and calling it “ramshackle.”

The dispute initially stemmed from a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that narrowed the eligibility for safety valve relief, contradicting Congress’s intended purpose when passing the law in 2018. Civil rights groups, such as the ACLU, supported maintaining the status quo, contending that courts should interpret vague or ambiguous criminal statutes in favor of defendants.

Gorsuch’s dissent underscored the weighty constitutional values at stake, emphasizing the need to resolve doubts about a criminal law’s reach in favor of leniency. He emphasized the crucial role of elected representatives, rather than judges, in defining crimes and punishments, underscoring the importance of preserving this balance of power.

In rejecting leniency for criminal defendants, Kagan’s majority opinion delivered a blow to the principles of tough-on-crime initiatives, aligning with the Biden administration’s stance. The ideological split among the justices highlighted the polarizing nature of criminal justice reform, leaving defendants with a narrower path to seek relief under the First Step Act of 2018.

Written by Staff Reports

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