People For the American Way

Trump Judges Send 65-Year-Old Back to Prison Due to Misreading of Supreme Court Ruling: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judges Send 65-Year-Old Back to Prison Due to Misreading of Supreme Court Ruling: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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

All six Trump judges on the 6th Circuit – Judges Larsen, Bush, Thapar, Nalbandian, Readler, and Murphy – refused to vote to grant rehearing of an earlier decision by Thapar and two other judges in which they misread both a Supreme Court decision and a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Their refusal to grant rehearing resulted in sending a 65-year-old man to serve more than seven additional years in prison. This was despite a dissent by a judge who was appointed by President George W. Bush and was on President Trump’s Supreme Court short list, who stated that rehearing should have been granted to “correct our own mistakes.”  The case is Walker v. U.S.

James Walker is a 65-year-old man who was convicted of being a “felon in possession of ammunition” for, as one judge put it, “possessing 13 bullets that he had found in a rooming house he managed and removed for safekeeping.” Under the ACCA, it was initially determined that Walker was required to be sentenced to 15 years imprisonment because of “three prior convictions for violent felonies.”

Counsel was appointed for him, and argued that one of the convictions could not be considered “violent” because it “could be committed by recklessly causing bodily injury to another” without more specific intent. A district court agreed, resentenced Walker to just over seven years, and he was then released.

When the government appealed, however, a 6th Circuit panel including Thapar reversed in an unsigned opinion and sent the case back so that Walker could be again sentenced for 15 years. This was because a 2017 6th Circuit decision had ruled, contrary to previous precedent, that recklessness was sufficient to make a crime a violent felony under the ACCA. But Judge Jane Stranch, who concurred only in the result of the panel ruling, explained that the 2017 decision had misinterpreted “the ACCA’s plain text” and a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. The 2016 ruling had found that recklessness was sufficient to convict someone of a different crime involving the use of force. But the ACCA specifically requires that a violent felony must involve the use of force “against the person of another,” Judge Stranch explained, and precedent makes clear that the person convicted must have intended to use force against the person of another, so that recklessness is not enough. Not only was it “unjust” to send Walker back to prison to serve a sentence “that is over double as long” as the more than seven year sentence, Stranch concluded, but it was also “unsound” and should be corrected by the full 6th Circuit.

In addition to Judge Stranch, three other 6th  circuit judges voted for the full court to rehear the case. This included Judge Raymond Kethledge, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and was on President Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court. Following similar reasoning as Judge Stranch, Judge Kethledge explained that the 2017 6th Circuit decision “mistakenly held” that “recklessness” was sufficient for a “violent felony” under the ACCA. The full court should have reheard the case, Kethledge maintained, in order to “correct our own mistakes” and because the “issue here recurs frequently and typically doubles a defendant’s sentence.”

But not a single one of Trump’s six 6th Circuit judges voted to rehear Walker’s case, and the majority of the court thus refused to reconsider it. As a result, 65-year-old James Walker, as well as many others, will be incarcerated twice as long as he should have been.