In United States v. Brown, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a district court’s sentence reduction. Judge Shedd wrote the opinion, which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Duncan joined.
Congress has provided that a sentencing reduction may be granted “in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced . . . based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.” 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(2). Brown’s sentence had been entered pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement that stipulated a sentencing range. Even though Congress later amended the sentencing guidelines that informed the range stipulated in the agreement, the court held that the sentence could not be reduced pursuant to 3582(c)(2).
The Fourth Circuit’s decision was dictated by the Supreme Court’s fractured opinions in Freeman v. United States, in which the Court split 4-1-4. Four Justices held that a sentence entered pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreement was never eligible for relief under 3582(c)(2) because the resulting sentence was based on the agreement, not on a Guidelines range. But another four Justices held that 3582(c)(2) always allowed for relief. Justice Sotomayor held that a sentence entered pursuant to 11(c)(1)(C) was eligible for relief if, but only if, the plea agreement itself explicitly referenced a sentencing guideline. Treating Justice Sotomayor’s opinion as controlling, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentence ordered pursuant to the agreement because it did not explicitly incorporate a particular guideline.
The decision is not notable for revealing anything about the Fourth Circuit, which had no discretion to rule as it did in light of Freeman. The decision is notable, instead, for starkly illustrating how the hierarchical nature of the federal court system dictates a certain outcome, even while the process by which it does so can legitimately be questioned. The decision also highlights how Freeman can be taken to stand for an unusual 5-4 split, one that aligns Sotomayor with Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas while placing Kennedy with Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.