In federal cases, district court judges have the discretion to impose basically any sentence that is within certain very broad statutory limits so long as that sentence is “reasonable.” One might be forgiven for assuming that the reasonableness limitation means that the sentence has to be fair and appropriate in any given case. That would seem to be consistent with … you know … the term “reasonableness” … . But that assumption is dead wrong. For proof look no further than the Third Circuit’s most recent sentencing opinion United States v. Adeolu.

First, some background. In federal court there are a set of sentencing guidelines that recommend a particular sentence in any given case. These are written by the sentencing commission and are crazy, but that is a different post. Federal district court judges are required by law to consider the guidelines’ recommendation but they ultimately have the constitutional authority to do anything they want. There are only two limits — the statutory minimums and maximums, and “reasonableness.” The statutory limits are often irrelevant, because most federal crimes have a range of between 0 and 20 years in prison.

But what about reasonableness? Ostensibly if a judge imposes a sentence a reviewing court is supposed to ask if that sentence was “substantively reasonable.” But this doesn’t mean the court is asking if the sentence was fair or appropriate or should have been imposed. Instead, this means that the judge has to give a reason for the sentence. It doesn’t have to be a good one.

In practice, reasonableness review is meaningless so long as a district court follows some very basic rules. If she gives any reason at all for the sentence and doesn’t say something improper, like imposing a sentence explicitly because of the defendant’s race, the sentence is safe on appeal.

This brings me to the Adeolu case. This case is mostly about what the guidelines should be and contains some interesting arguments about vulnerable victim enhancement. But that’s not what has me going today.

The defense also argued that Mr. Adeolu’s prison sentence was substantively unreasonable. The Court’s treatment of this argument shows exactly what this kind of review really means. Take a look at the opinion and see if you can answer this very simple question – What was Mr. Adeolu’s sentence? Go ahead … I’ll wait. Did you see it? A careful reader will find that he was sentenced to 56 months in prison for tax fraud. But that information is contained on the very last page of the opinion in a footnote. That same footnote contains all of the analysis about reasonableness review. Here it is, in full: “The District Court indeed considered mitigating factors in determining Adeolu’s sentence, such as his lack of criminal history, his familial and community support, and his intelligence. Thus, we will affirm the entirety of Adeolu’s sentence.” The Court isn’t saying the sentence was appropriate, they are just saying that the district court “considered” the defense arguments, and then imposed a sentence of close to five years in prison for a first-time tax cheat. That’s what reasonableness review really means.

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