Thursday, June 26, 2003

U.S. official tries to
mend fences on Kauai

POIPU, Kauai >> Deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry Thompson stopped just short of apologizing to federal judges from the Western states for the Bush administration's behind-the-scenes sponsorship of the controversial Feeney Amendment.

"I know the process was viewed as something less than aboveboard," the No. 2 man in the U.S. Justice Department said to several hundred judges and attorneys meeting on Kauai at the annual conference of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We will not have a situation again where you, the judiciary, feel we have been less than open in our dealings," Thompson added.

The Feeney Amendment, which went into effect May 30, for the first time in U.S. history strips federal judges of the power to reduce sentences -- make "downward departures" from the federal sentencing guidelines written by U.S. Sentencing Commission. Its final version applies to only sex crimes against children, but its original wording -- backed by the Bush administration -- included all federal crimes.

It also reduces the number of judges on the Sentencing Commission, making them a minority on the panel when they previously had the majority of votes. The law requires the commission to write rules to "substantially reduce" the number of "downward departures" in all criminal sentencings.

The amendment was introduced by U.S. Rep. Thomas Feeney (R-Fla.) and tacked onto the Federal Amber Act -- the bill making the local programs to locate missing children a national effort -- on the House floor. It originally stripped federal judges of most of their discretion in sentencing.

The House bill was watered down in a conference committee with the Senate and limited to crimes against children.

The bill has been sharply criticized by many federal judges, starting with U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

It even has been criticized by former federal prosecutors who said many of the reduced sentences have been made at the prosecution's request to honor agreements made to cooperating witnesses.

Thompson said he supported the Feeney Amendment in its original form. But he also acknowledged he is aware the judiciary is angry about the way the amendment was tacked on at the last minute and that the judges blame the Bush administration and the Justice Department in particular.

Thompson indicated the judiciary would be consulted in the future. "The most valuable thing we have in DOJ is the trust and respect of the federal judiciary," he told the judges.


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