SCOTUS Struggles For Middle Ground On Key Gun Issue

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments regarding the application of mandatory 15-year sentences under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a federal three-strikes law, to drug offenses. The justices were tasked with determining which drug offenses should be considered under the ACCA, explicitly focusing on the controlled substances schedule and the laws adhered to by the attorney general.

The main question was determining which version of the drug schedule should be applied. This question was because the schedule is periodically revised, leading to confusion in this particular case. Depending on the version of the schedule that applies, a state drug conviction may or may not be considered a strike under the federal gun law.

Lawyers in the consolidated cases presented three options to the justices for deciding which schedule should be used: the one in force at the time of the state drug offense, the one in place at the time of the federal gun crime, or the one that applied at the time of sentencing for the federal gun crime.

Eugene Jackson would have been spared if the middle option had been chosen. He had committed cocaine offenses in Florida in 1998 and 2004, and by the time he committed a federal gun crime in 2017, the schedule had changed in a way that benefited him. However, a federal appeals court ruled that the schedule in effect when he committed the state drug crimes should be considered, resulting in a 15-year sentence.

Andrew Adler, Eugene Jackson’s lawyer, made an interesting argument, stating that the time that mattered was when his client committed the federal gun crime. He posed a thought experiment, suggesting that if Congress had amended the gun law after a defendant had committed a state crime, dropping it from the ones requiring a mandatory sentence, the amended law would be applied to determine whether the state crime triggered the sentence. Mr. Adler believed that the analysis should not change simply because a schedule was involved.

Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with the argument, stating that a schedule revision essentially amended the statute. Justice Elena Kagan found the distinction between the two scenarios mysterious, suggesting that it didn’t make sense to have a different rule for drug schedules compared to listing the substances directly.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court is grappling with the issue of which drug offenses should be considered under the ACCA. The justices are exploring different options for determining which version of the drug schedule should apply, with varying opinions among them. The outcome of this case will have significant implications for individuals convicted of drug offenses and the application of mandatory sentences under the ACCA.