Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked his prosecutors to report to him any federal judges who on their own — in other words, not as part of a plea bargain — impose sentences that are more lenient than the federal sentencing guidelines.
Not coincidentally, a group of House Republicans allied with the very conservative and very activist majority leader, Tom DeLay, have formed the Working Group on Judicial Accountability to monitor and expose federal judges they suspect of being too lenient.
It would be naive to regard these actions as a simple gathering of facts. Dispensing with such niceties as the separation of powers, Ashcroft and his like-minded friends in the House would like to intimidate federal judges into imposing the sentences they think should be imposed.
The founders gave us an independent judiciary to withstand just this sort of attempted meddling by the executive and the legislative branches, but the House has indicated a disturbing willingness to go beyond browbeating.
The federal sentencing guidelines are intended to bring uniformity to the punishment of crimes by laying down a range of sentences. The judges might depart from the guidelines, but for many crimes, particularly drugs, they are limited by mandatory minimum sentences.
As Chief Justice William Rehnquist has pointed out, Congress rushes to enact mandatory minimums to show it is "tough on crime" without regard for the judicial consequences, let alone any standards of fairness in sentencing. Many believe the guidelines themselves are too harsh and 15 years overdue for revision.
In politics, for every action there is always an opposite, if not always equal, reaction, and the American Bar Association will now look at whether mandatory minimum prison terms should be abolished altogether and whether federal sentencing guidelines should be relaxed.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee to the high court, told the ABA, "I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences. In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise or unjust."