NEW YORK – Once annually, sometimes less, the full federal appeals court in New York meets to confront a perplexing legal question. Most recently, it was to decide whether shooting somebody point-blank in the face and stabbing somebody to death are violent acts.
The 14 judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan who heard arguments in U.S. v. Gerald Scott were left to decide how to label the 1998 killings that they agreed were “undoubtedly brutal."
Ultimately, the full court voted 9-to-5 this week to conclude that Scott’s crimes were indeed violent. But their votes came with a robust debate over a legal puzzle that has vexed multiple federal courts — even if, they agreed, the answer might seem like common sense.
A lower-court judge had decided that Scott’s convictions — on manslaughter charges — meant he had not been convicted of a violent crime. He was freed after serving just over 11 years of a 22-year sentence.
The decision did not shock judges who considered the appeal in November in a unique gathering known as an “en banc” meeting of the full 2nd Circuit.
That’s because two laws at stake — the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Career Offender Sentencing Guideline — do not define a violent crime by what the defendant actually did. Instead, the crime is defined by the minimum acts someone might have committed and still been convicted of the offense.
In Scott's case, the lower court judge concluded that manslaughter can be a crime of omission in which no force is used — if somebody fails to feed someone who dies of starvation or fails to tell someone that their food is poisoned, for example.
A three-judge 2nd Circuit panel later agreed, prompting federal prosecutors to seek the rare full-court proceeding to try to overturn the appeals finding.
The issue had been confronted before in at least two other “en banc” proceedings nationwide and by numerous judges in other court hearings. Still, in various opinions issued Tuesday, the judges in Scott's case allowed that the question might sound odd to a layperson.
“An affirmative answer might appear obvious to a man on the street aware of Scott’s conduct," Circuit Judge Reena Raggi wrote.
Circuit Judge Michael H. Park noted the “absurdity of the exercise we have now completed. ... The question answers itself to any layperson with common sense."
He pointed to a similar en banc proceeding two years ago in Atlanta, where Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wondered in writing how the court had reached the point of having to debate “whether a carjacking in which an assailant struck a 13-year-old girl in the mouth with a baseball bat and a cohort fired an AK-47 at her family is a crime of violence?”
“It’s nuts,” Pryor wrote. "And Congress needs to act to end this ongoing judicial charade.”
And in 2011, an en banc proceeding in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco led Judge Jay Scott Bybee to marvel that for at least two decades, judges have tried to address a categorical approach required by the Supreme Court to determine whether a crime results from violence.
“Indeed, over the past decade, perhaps no other area of the law has demanded more of our resources," Bybee wrote.
In New York, the full court found that a person can “act” to commit a crime by failing to perform a legal duty. It directed the lower-court judge to reinstate Scott's original sentence. Scott's attorney declined comment.
Raggi, writing for the majority, noted that even Scott's lawyers acknowledged that death amounting to first-degree manslaughter always results from violence.
“It may be possible for a defendant to cause death either by physical action or by omission, but, in either circumstance, the causation of that ultimate physical injury necessarily involves the use of violent force," she said.
Writing for five dissenting judges, Circuit Judge Rosemary S. Pooler said “the law and logic dictate only one possible outcome: a crime committed by omission — definitionally, no action at all — cannot possibly be a crime involving physical, violent force.”
In a separate dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote that the use of force “does not clearly apply to a crime that can be committed by doing nothing at all."
“Statutes making harsh sentences mandatory hardly ever serve a useful purpose, and inevitably guarantee instances of serious, needless injustice," Leval wrote.
Leval suggested that the 2nd Circuit might someday now have to impose a harsh 15-year prison sentence on someone who grants her 95-year-old paralyzed dying father's wish to escape an excruciatingly painful death by failing to put nutrients in his IV.
“The sentencing of a 16-year-old for killing his stepfather to protect his mother from brutal beatings poses very different considerations from the sentencing of one who committed a contract killing for pay, or shot a stranger to death in order to steal his Porsche," Leval wrote. “A statute that mandates the same sentence for all of these will fail to do justice.”