Rod Rosenstein Has His Day In Court

A low-profile case about criminal sentences gave the deputy attorney general a chance to spend an hour at the Supreme Court — and away from the news cycle.

A year ago this week, Rod Rosenstein left his post as the country's longest-serving presidentially appointed federal prosecutor to join the senior leadership of the Justice Department as the number two official at the department.

Nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein was confirmed by the Senate on April 25, 2017. He has been in the middle of several of the highest-profile controversies of the Trump era — from Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey to Rosenstein's subsequent decision to appoint, and now oversee, special counsel Robert Mueller — and the frequent target of Trump's anger since.

On Monday afternoon, Rosenstein appeared before the justices of the Supreme Court — ordinarily, a high-profile moment for any lawyer.

Rosenstein's appearance before the justices was not in a high-profile case, and his moment at the high court could be seen as an attempt to show Rosenstein acting as a normal Justice Department lawyer, just trying to do his job.

His 30 minutes at the podium — a Twitter-free zone with no video cameras and where the audio recordings won't be made public until Friday — gave Rosenstein time to be a lawyer.

That's not to say it was an easy 30 minutes.

Rosenstein was before the justices to argue that Adaucto Chavez-Meza's criminal sentence should be upheld against a challenge that the trial judge did not provide sufficient reasoning for the sentence.

The case doesn't involve initial sentencing. The subset of cases involved are ones where defendants previously sentenced are seeking a reduction in their sentence. The question in the case is whether checking a box on a prepared form provides enough of a reasoning to justify a judge's decision on a person's motion for a sentence reduction.

Chavez-Meza initially was sentenced at the lower end of what the Sentencing Guidelines recommended for the drug-related crimes of which he was convicted. The guidelines aren't mandatory, but sentences within the guidelines are likely to be upheld. Under federal law, though, when the US Sentencing Commission changes the guidelines and recommends that the changes be considered retroactively, those serving sentences under that provision can file a motion for a sentence reduction. Chavez-Meza did so, but this time he was given a sentence in the mid-range portion of the new guidelines.

The judge checked a box that stated he had considered the appropriate legal factors in making his decision, but Chavez-Meza's lawyer argued in court on Monday that more should be required in order to assure that appeals courts can appropriately review judges' actions.

The Justice Department, with Rosenstein at the podium, argued to the eight justices on the bench that checking the box was enough. (Justice Neil Gorsuch, nominated to the bench by Trump, had recused himself from the case, which came to the justices on appeal from Gorsuch's old court.)

When Chief Justice John Roberts asked how a district court judge could be reversed on appeal so long as the reduced sentence remained within the guidelines, Rosenstein said the defendant would need to find something in the record of the case to justify an appeal.

Rosenstein pressed back when Justice Elena Kagan asserted that the judge in question wouldn't have to give reasons "at length" for a decision, but instead would just have "to give both the defendant and the appellate court some understanding of why the judge is doing what the judge is doing."

Rosenstein argued that the Chavez-Meza's argument about "proportionality" — that his original sentence was at the lower end of the guideline range but that the reduced sentence was not — "shouldn't be involved" in considering whether the new sentence is permissible.

"Well, it raised a question, don't you think?" Kagan asked.

"No, I do not, your honor," Rosenstein held firm.

The arguments paired Rosenstein off against Todd Coberly, a lawyer appointed by the court to represent Chavez-Meza. While Rosenstein was arguing what some justices appeared to see at times as a simplistic position that checking the box on a form was sufficient, Coberly had the opposite problem of being unable or unwilling to specify precisely how much more than that he thought would be sufficient to allow meaningful appellate review.

"He gave a reason," Justice Stephen Breyer said to Coberly at one point, referencing that the law was specified on the checkbox form. "That's the reason. Now, what else is he supposed to say?"

"Well, your honor," Coberly responded, "we disagree that that's actually a reason."

It was not clear whether Rosenstein would succeed in court on Monday, and the answer likely won't come until June. The tough questioning, though, didn't appear to take away from the moment — and how Rosenstein was playing it for the public.

In a sign that even Rosenstein understood that the appearance could play to his advantage on TV, he gave the cameras their moment — descending from the front steps of the marble courthouse with his wife and daughters, as opposed to heading out a side door.

The four made their way across the court's grand plaza, with security surrounding them and cameras rolling, before being whisked off in a car.

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