“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties and the need for the Senate to confirm President Biden’s federal court nominees to help counteract these effects . Supreme and appellate court cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy cast the deciding vote to revoke a district court’s COVID-19 compassionate release order of a Black man who has already served more than 22 years in prison. The November 2021 decision was in United States v Bass.
As recounted in an earlier blog entry on this case, after serving in prison for 22 years for a conviction on serious drug and murder charges, John Bass, who is African-American, filed a motion for compassionate release because of serious COVID-19 dangers in prison and his repentance for and rehabilitation from the crimes he committed. Judge Arthur Tarnow, who had presided over Bass’ trial and sentenced him to two concurrent life sentences, issued a 26-page opinion and order that granted the motion. Judge Tarnow carefully analyzed the factors specified in the federal compassionate release law as modified by the First Step Act. He found that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranted such relief because of the “risk posed to Bass from his medical conditions,” including hypertension, pre-diabetes, and obesity, and “the spread of COVID-19” at the prison where he has been confined, posing a “potentially deadly” risk.
Tarnow went on to acknowledge the “horrific” nature of the crimes Bass committed, and explained that under the compassionate release law established by Congress, his duty as a judge was to evaluate Bass “not as he was on the day of sentencing but as he is today” after more than two decades in prison. During that time, Tarnow continued, Bass had obtained his GED and participated for over 1000 hours in a “long list of classes and programs.” He was highly recommended by prison officials to become a “certified life coach,” and has already provided significant help to younger family members and others. The court had received “letter after letter” from people outside of prison, the judge recounted, “detailing Bass’ remorse” and growth, in accord with Bass’s own statements of “deep remorse and shame”. Prison officials offered similar “glowing” reports, Tarnow noted, and Bass “regularly attends religious services and classes.” He works as a custodian, and has cooperated with law enforcement in helping them pursue other drug offenders, which has placed him “in harm’s way” in prison. He plans to “mentor youth in his family and community” outside of prison, has already received several job offers, and Tarnow noted that Bass has a “short disciplinary history” in prison and the Bureau of Prisons has concluded that he has a “LOW recidivism risk.” Tarnow concluded that Bass is a “BOP success story” who has “turned the pain and darkness of his former life on the streets” into a “light for those still lost in its grips,” and decided to give him “a well-earned second chance.”
As a result of a 2-1 decision in which Trump judge Nalbandian cast the deciding vote, however, Bass’ release was stayed until a Sixth Circuit panel could fully review the case. Trump judge Murphy cast the deciding vote in another 2-1 ruling that revoked Bass’ compassionate release completely. The majority claimed that the district court had “abused its discretion” in granting the release because Judge Tarnow had made “two errors of law.” These included improperly comparing Bass’s sentence and time served with a lighter sentence of a recently paroled person who had been tried in state court for the same crimes, and “analogizing its role to that of a parole board.” The majority sent the case back to the district court which could re-evaluate it, warning Judge Tarnow that he should give more weight than he had to what it called the “heinous nature” of Bass’ crimes and consider the “current facts” concerning COVID-19.
Judge Helene White, who was nominated by President George W Bush, firmly dissented. She wrote that although she herself “would not have granted Bass’ motion,” the majority ruling did not comply with the “compassionate release jurisprudence” developed by the court. Under those principles, she continued, district courts are required to provide “only the most minimal explanation,” appellate panels “must defer to their judgment,” and “our disagreement” with district courts’ “exercise of discretion” is “expressly excluded as a ground for reversal.” The majority’s criticism of Tarnow’s decision and the weight he gave to Bass’ crimes, she continued, was “faulty” and “contrary to our established framework” of deferring to district courts in such cases, whether they grant or deny compassionate release.
White also explained what was wrong with the majority’s claims concerning legal errors. Although she agreed that the comparison to the paroled state prisoner was not proper, she pointed out that it was clear that Tarnow “would have granted” the motion anyway, noting that he had mentioned the comparison only briefly towards the end of his opinion. Similarly, White went on, the district court “did not adopt” the parole board analogy, since Tarnow had only made an “isolated comment” on the issue at a hearing, did not even mention it in his extensive opinion, and specifically recognized after making the comment that “there is no parole board in the federal system” and his task was to evaluate the specific factors contained in the applicable federal statute.
In addition to the harm to Bass, the decision made possible by Trump judge Murphy clearly violates the principle, as Judge White put it, that appellate courts’ “trust in the discretion of the district court must be consistent regardless of whether” it rules for or against an individual or the government in compassionate release cases. The same principle applies to appellate review of district court rulings in general. This case illustrates that, as part of our fight for our courts, it is important that the Senate confirm fair-minded judges who will appropriately respect the judgments of district courts and fully implement criminal justice reform laws like the First Step Act.