In the recently decided Terry v. United States, the Supreme Court issued a 19 page opinion, in which it unanimously decided that Congress had screwed up in an attempt to improve laws relating to prison sentences for persons convicted of possessing crack cocaine. The petitioner had been sent to prison for 15 years for possession of less than 4 ounces of crack cocaine (about the weight of four paper clips). Congress had earlier modified laws permitting persons convicted of larger amounts to petition for reduced sentences. But apparently, Congress hadn’t done the same for persons convicted of possessing smaller amounts. So if the petitioner had been sentenced for having 5 ounces or more, he could have asked for a sentence reduction, but because it was only about 4 ounces, he could not. The lower courts and all the SCOTUS justices agreed. They couldn’t do anything, even though it was clear that Congress probably made a mistake, since this rule made no sense.
Duh. So the stupid mess was returned to Congress for any change.
This isn’t to say that SCOTUS couldn’t have reached a different conclusion. Apparently, all of the discussion in Congress seemed to indicate that persons convicted of possession of minor amounts of crack cocaine would have the same rights as persons convicted of having larger amounts, but the “plain” statutory language didn’t include this. SCOTUS should have just decided that the statute didn’t really reflect what Congress was trying to do. In other words, it should have created a “Duh” exception to statutory interpretation, when it was clear that the clear language in the statute didn’t really reflect what the legislature was trying to do.
If judges don’t feel empowered to make such a decision on their own, then Congress should enact a “Duh” law. This law would permit the trial judge to review the statute and, if it appeared that the statutory language was contrary to what Congress was really trying to do, so state and – in effect – interpret the law contrary to its “plain meaning.” The trial judge’s decision would not be binding, but if the appellate court unanimously agreed, then the “plain meaning” would be disregarded in favor of what Congress really meant to do. This would avoid the need to go to the Supreme Court or back to Congress to correct the mistake.
Naturally, if the losing party wanted to ask the Supreme Court to review what the lower courts had done, it could do so. But the “Duh” law would permit SCOTUS either to leave the lower court ruling alone or, by a vote of 7 members or more, agree with lower courts’ rulings without the need for actual argument before the Court.
Of course, if for some reason Congress disagreed with the judges, it could easily pass a clarifying law. But this “Duh” law would provide a way of avoiding ridiculous bureaucracy, which is really what the Terry decision amounts to. The decisions by the Terry judges mean that Congress must reconsider and remedy its own mistake, spending valuable time remedying a situation which the judges could have remedied.
A lot of this has to do with whether we trust judges to make the right decision. But judges are lawyers, and they have taken an oath to follow the law. If there is a “Duh” law, the judges can look at the legislative history, examine the text of the law, and decide if there is some obvious error in the way the law was put into words. If both the trial judge and the appellate court unanimously agree that the text of the law doesn’t reflect the obvious intent, then they should be permitted to reinterpret the plain language appropriately. This would save the need to go to the Supreme Court or back to Congress. And there would still be a route through SCOTUS or Congress to correct the lower court judges if need be.