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Home Supreme Court Justices Gorsuch, KBJ, and Sotomayor criticized their colleagues for a decision on the First Step Act that they believe will affect 'thousands more people.' They believe this decision was a betrayal and breach of a promise made by Congress

Justices Gorsuch, KBJ, and Sotomayor criticized their colleagues for a decision on the First Step Act that they believe will affect 'thousands more people.' They believe this decision was a betrayal and breach of a promise made by Congress

After the Supreme Court found that a man convicted of meth distribution wasn’t entitled to safety-valve relief under the First Step Act, dissenting justices characterized the ruling as a broken promise.

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Justices Sonia Sotomayor (L) Neil Gorsuch (C) and Ketanji Brown Jackson (R)

Justices Sonia Sotomayor (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images), Neil Gorsuch (Photo by Melina Mara / POOL / AFP), Ketanji Brown Jackson (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

After the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision, a man convicted of methamphetamine distribution was denied the “safety-valve relief” he sought under the First Step Act. 6-3 ruling This act was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, and the dissenting justices see the ruling as a betrayal of a promise made by Congress. criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, three dissenting justices framed the ruling as a betrayal and breach of a “promise” made by Congress.

Mark Pulsifer sought a writ of certiorari in 2022 to resolve a circuit split on how to interpret writ of certiorari in 2022 asking the high court to resolve a circuit split on how to interpret 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1), which deals with limiting mandatory minimums in cases where a defendant doesn’t have [emphasis on “and” ours]: “(A) more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; (B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines.”

Highlighting that Pulsifer’s criminal record did not include a two-point violent offense, his lawyers argued over the meaning of “and” in the statute.

“The question presented is whether to read § 3553(f)(1) conjunctively or disjunctively. Put simply, does a defendant satisfy § 3553(f)(1) unless he has all three of (A), (B), and (C)—the conjunctive reading—or must he have none of (A), (B), or (C)—the disjunctive reading?” the petition asked. “The Ninth Circuit says conjunctive, relying on the ordinary conjunctive meaning of the word ‘and’ to rule in the defendant’s favor. But the Eighth Circuit here, since joined by the Seventh Circuit, said disjunctive, expressly rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s view and holding that ‘and’ really means ‘or.'”

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Sonia Sotomayor did not join the opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, which was joined by the other justices.

More Law&Crime coverage: Justices Sotomayor, Thomas and Gorsuch Headline Unusual Majority in First Step Act Case

The majority ruled that a defendant in Pulsifer’s situation can get “safety valve relief […] only if he ‘does not have’ all three of the items listed—or said more specifically, does not have four criminal-history points, does not have a prior three-point offense, and does not have a prior two-point violent offense.”

Justice Kagan explained that the paragraph sets out an eligibility checklist, requiring a defendant to satisfy every condition.

All student-athletes are eligible for an academic scholarship, provided that the student during the previous semester did not—
(A) fail a course;
(B) commit plagiarism; and
(C) get arrested.

Justice Kagan acknowledged the grammatical possibility of Pulsifer’s interpretation of “and,” but she presented a more compelling opposite interpretation through a hypothetical.

The majority opinion said that a student would need a lot of confidence to argue that he remains eligible for a scholarship when he failed a course, committed plagiarism, and managed to evade arrest. The majority also mentioned that there is another possible way to interpret the policy, where the student must meet all three conditions. The majority expressed that considering the content of the policy and what it actually says, it cannot be read in the way suggested by Pulsifer.

Gorsuch, joined by Sotomayor and Jackson, wrote a 33-page dissent, expressing that while the majority justices made it harder to obtain sentencing relief by parsing language, this seemingly small difference in opinion actually guarantees consequences for thousands more people.

Gorsuch wrote that adopting the government’s preferred interpretation ensures that thousands more people in the federal criminal justice system will be denied a chance at an individualized sentence. He criticized the government for setting aside ordinary meaning and contextual clues in statutory interpretation, and argued that policy concerns were being prioritized over traditional practice of construing penal laws strictly.

Gorsuch sharply criticized his colleagues, accusing the majority of making an anti-liberty ruling fueled by a regrettable choice to ignore the law’s ordinary and most natural meaning, resulting in reneging on the congressional promise that the First Step Act made to Pulsifer and others to have just a chance for an individualized sentencing.

It is a regrettable choice that requires us to abandon one principle of statutory interpretation after another. We must read words into the law; we must delete others. We must ignore Congress’s use of a construction that tends to avoid, not invite, questions about implicit distribution. We must dismiss Congress’s variations in usage as sloppy mistakes. Never mind that Congress distributed phrases expressly when it wanted them to repeat in the safety valve.

Never mind that Congress used “or” when it sought an efficient way to hinge eligibility for relief based on a single characteristic. We must then read even more words yet into the law to manufacture a superfluity problem that does not exist. We must elevate unexpressed congressional purposes over statutory text. Finally, rather than resolve any reasonable doubt about statutory meaning in favor of the individual, we must prefer a more punitive theory the government only recently engineered.

Today, the Court indulges each of these moves. All to what end? To deny some individuals a chance—just a chance—at relief from mandatory minimums and a sentence that fits them and their circumstances. It is a chance Congress promised in the First Step Act, and it is a promise this Court should have honored. Respectfully, I dissent.

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