Shifting To Senior Status, Sessions Reflects On Mandatory Minimums, And The Trouble With Objectivity

Jan 29, 2014

Vermont’s federal court judge William Sessions announced earlier this month that he’ll be shifting to senior status, an announcement that prompted Vermont’s senior Senator Patrick Leahy to call Sessions one of the most respected federal judges in the country.

Judge Sessions has served in Vermont since 1995, but was well acquainted with the state before then, having graduated from Middlebury College in the late 1960s.

Judge William Sessions spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb.

The shift to senior status means Sessions could eventually work part-time, but he wants to continue with a full case load. Soon, Vermont will have three judges rather than two.

The reasons for the shift are largely personal. Sessions has four grandchildren, and he wants to be engaged in more grandfatherly activities. The move to senior status also allows him to sit on other courts around the country when needed.

In 2007, Sessions ruled in favor of Vermont, New York and environmental groups like the Sierra Club in a case where they were sued by automobile manufacturers for enacting tighter vehicle emissions standards. The case was based upon the interpretations of the regulations passed in California, which were then adopted by Vermont and New York.

“The attack was raised by the car companies that these regulations were so strict that it would inhibit their progress. And I looked specifically into their arguments, in particular, trying to figure out whether the emissions were justified, and also whether they would provide an undue impediment to the car industry and found that the regulations were scientifically and economically justified,” Sessions said.

But Sessions says the bigger rulings for him were a case involving Vermont’s campaign finance law, a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a case on equal pay for women.  

“Usually I’ll get one, two or three significant cases a year, with national import, and the emissions case was just one of them,” Sessions said.

The campaign finance case involved a law passed by the Vermont legislature that controlled not just campaign contributions, but also campaign expenditures. “It was the first state really to say that campaign expenditures should be restricted, that is how much a person can spend. In fact, there was a U.S. Supreme Court case that said that you cannot control campaign expenditures because it’s a violation of the first amendment. I eventually found that the efforts to limit expenditures were unconstitutional, although I suggested that they may very well be justified and perhaps the Supreme Court should look again, but I also upheld the contribution limits that the Vermont legislature imposed on state positions,” Sessions explained.

In addition to his court duties, Sessions has served on and chaired the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a group designed to address disparities in sentencing. The commission was established in response to a study that showed if you were charged as a defendant and found guilty of a crime you were likely to receive a different sentence depending on the state where you were charged. The group sets policies for the implementation of criminal sentences.

Sessions was appointed in 1999 by President Bill Clinton and re-appointed by President George W. Bush. When President Barack Obama nominated Sessions to be chair of the commission, there was a delay in his confirmation. Some have speculated that it was political payback for the president’s choice of Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court, but Sessions said he has no idea what was behind the delay:

“The Sentencing Commission is a fairly controversial body in Washington, we have a lot of contact with members of congress, what was behind their thinking was unclear to me, but ultimately when I came up for a vote for chair of the commission, I received a unanimous vote.”

The commission has made changes to the mandatory minimums for drug crimes like crack cocaine possession. In the 1980s, people sentenced for cocaine possession, many of whom were white, got lighter sentences than African Americans sentenced for equivalent amounts of crack cocaine possession.

“This disparity was having an enormous impact on the African American community. So what the commission did, and this is what I’m most proud of frankly, is in 2004, we decided to, on our own, reduce the penalties for crack cocaine. Then we applied the changes retroactively, to those persons who were already in prison. As a result, approximately 20,000 defendants in prison received reduced sentences, about three years each, many of them were released immediately. We then followed those individuals to see if their recidivism rates were higher, and they were not any higher than anyone else,” Sessions explained. That led the push to change the mandatory minimums. While Sessions was chair of the commission, congress passed changes to the mandatory minimum sentences to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and President Obama signed the changes into law. “The reduction has been significant,” Sessions said.

Many people think judges simply follow the letter of the law, but Sessions said decision making is a more complicated process.

“In the process of sentencing a human being, one looks at that human being and makes an objective assessment of what that person did. But then when you  interpret the reasons why the offense was committed, factors that may play a role in deciding what is the just sentence, one, needless to say, thinks about ones own experience and makes that kind of assessment. When looking at a constitutional issue, on the one hand you’re making an objective assessment of what the law is, but the law is a continuing moving target, it’s going in directions, and to what extent do you try to figure out where is the law headed? And by doing that subjective elements become very much part of your decision,” Sessions said.