People For the American Way

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Affirm Longer Prison Term for Immigrant, Despite Finding of Plain Error and Dissent by Bush Appointee

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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Affirm Longer Prison Term for Immigrant, Despite Finding of Plain Error and Dissent by Bush Appointee

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

Trump Fifth Circuit Judge Don Willett recently cast the deciding vote in a ruling that affirmed a prison sentence of more than four years to Carlos Alberto Fuentes-Canales, who was convicted of re-entering the United States illegally—even though, as the opinion by Judge Priscilla Owen recognized, the lower court had committed “plain error” in handing down the sentence. Bush appointee Judge Leslie Southwick strongly dissented.

The case, United States v. Fuentes-Canales, is about a man who—after living in this country for 26 years—was deported after being convicted in Texas of unlawfully entering the home of his former wife. Shortly after his deportation, Fuentes-Canales attempted to come back to the United States, and then pleaded guilty to unlawful re-entry. Because of the prior Texas conviction, he received a more severe sentence than usual: more than four years’ imprisonment.

On appeal, the federal public defender argued that the enhanced sentence was improper because the Texas offense was not a crime of violence and that Fuentes-Canales was sentenced to jail for more than two years longer than he should have been. All three judges on the appellate court agreed that the trial court had made a clear legal mistake, and that the mistake affected Fuentes-Canales’ “substantial rights” because it resulted in a prison sentence of over two additional years. But Judges Owen and Willett nevertheless affirmed the sentence because they believed an enhanced sentence was justified based on their own review of the facts of the Texas case.

Judge Southwick strongly dissented. It is the appropriate function of a trial court to decide what sentence should be given, he explained, and appellate courts are properly “reviewers of sentences” for legal error, “never their effective creators.” The appeals court should “vacate and remand for resentencing when plain error prejudicing a defendant is shown,” he wrote, “without trying to decide whether the defendant got what we think he deserved.” There was no indication that the district court judge would have handed down the four-plus year sentence if he had analyzed the law and the sentencing guidelines correctly, Southwick elaborated, and it was thus an improper “exercise of discretion” to act as the majority did. In short, he concluded, “it is the district judge’s judgment that we review,” and we should not “substitute ours even when we can.”

But because Trump Judge Don Willett sided with Judge Owen in the case, Mr. Fuentes-Canales was sentenced to be imprisoned for more than two additional years.