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Chief Justice William Rehnquist delivered a New Year’s Day scolding to Congress over a law that attempts to crack down on what lawmakers saw as overly lenient sentencing policies on the federal bench. In his annual Jan. 1 report on the federal judiciary, Rehnquist asserted the law could improperly “intimidate individual judges” and threaten judicial independence.The law, passed last April, increases the amount of documentation and reporting required when judges levy criminal sentences lighter than those established by sentencing guidelines. It also requires that courts submit to Congress data about individual judges’ sentencing decisions. In addition to bemoaning the law itself, Rehnquist used even more passionate rhetoric to highlight what he sees as Congress’ failure to consult the judiciary before passing it. “It seems that the traditional interchange between the Congress and the Judiciary broke down when Congress enacted what is known as the PROTECT Act,” Rehnquist said. “Obtaining the views of the Judiciary before the PROTECT Act was enacted would have given all members of Congress the benefit of a perspective they may not have been aware of, on this aspect of the legislation and other aspects that deal with a delicate process that judges understand very well.” Rehnquist acknowledged Congress has the power to pass laws affecting sentencing without consulting anyone else. He went on to quote the late Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who wrote about the byplay between the legislative and judicial branches in a 1939 address to Congress. “In the great enterprise of making democracy workable we are all partners, one member of our body politic cannot say to another �I have no need of thee,’ ” Hughes said. “ We work in successful cooperation by being true, each department to its own function, and all to the spirit which pervades our institutions.” The law targeted by Rehnquist was part of the PROTECT Act�short for the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act�and was known as the Feeney Amendment after sponsor Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). Feeney and his staff could not be reached for comment. Echoing comments he made soon after the Feeney Amendment was passed, Rehnquist in his Jan. 1 report said the law’s reporting requirements could lead Congress to question the sentencing practices of individual judges in ways that “could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties.” Rehnquist added that, in the absence of the law, anyone at the Justice Department interested in judge-specific sentencing information could find it through U.S. attorneys “on an informal basis,” and any departures from sentencing guidelines deemed unwarranted could be appealed. The law also aroused the ire of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the judicial policy-making body chaired by Rehnquist. On Sept. 23, the panel called for the repeal of the sentencing features of the law.

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