Pot and impartiality

United States v. Smith, No. 14-2223 (7th Cir. Oct. 27, 2014).

To simplify the facts of this case a little: Jesse Smith was sentenced to prison, followed by a term of supervised release, during which he was forbidden from using marijuana. He tested positive for marijuana on more than one occasion, and admitted that he used it regularly. For breaking the conditions of his supervised release, the district court judge sentenced Smith to one year and three months in prison.

The Seventh Circuit expresses some doubt about this sentencing decision. Smith clearly has a marijuana habit, it says, but is prison really the right way to deal with it? He had been imprisoned for more than two years, and that didn’t break him of the habit, so why should we think that more prison will do it? Plus, Smith had been praised by his employers and had been paying his bills.

Still, in light of the deference accorded to district court sentencing determinations, the Seventh Circuit says that it would have to affirm the decision below—except for one thing. The district court judge that sent Smith to prison for continuing to use marijuana had been the assistant U.S. attorney handling Smith’s case back in 2011. It’s not clear what her role was back then, but it’s possible that her earlier participation in Smith’s case as an attorney should have disqualified her from serving as Smith’s sentencing judge. So the Seventh Circuit asks the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing whether the district court judge should have recused herself from sentencing Smith. 

Plainly this is not the end of the road for this appeal. If and when the Seventh Circuit issues another opinion, I’ll post an update.