Today, in two parallel ops (which for no apparent reason were not consolidated), the Miss. Supreme Court affirms long sentences for armed robbery, against the argument that the defendants were so old that the sentences amounted to a life sentence.
Justice Coleman’s special concurrence in Hampton is an occasion to consider how to read a statute, in this instance Miss. Code Ann. § 97-3-79:
Every person who shall feloniously take or attempt to take from the person or from the presence the personal property of another and against his will by violence to his person or by putting such person in fear of immediate injury to his person by the exhibition of a deadly weapon shall be guilty of robbery and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned for life in the state penitentiary if the penalty is so fixed by the jury; and in cases where the jury fails to fix the penalty at imprisonment for life in the state penitentiary the court shall fix the penalty at imprisonment in the state penitentiary for any term not less than three (3) years.
Coleman says, “any term not less than 3 years” clearly doesn’t exclude a life sentence, right?
The MSSC had held otherwise in Stewart v. State, where, applying a rule arrived at re: the forcible-rape statute, the Court had held that
The statute before us places the imposition of a life sentence within the sole province of the jury and, in our opinion, no such sentence can be imposed by a judge unless he has the authority from the jury so to do. The statute presupposes, absent a jury recommendation of life imprisonment, that the judge will sentence the defendant to a definite term reasonably expected to be less than life.
But, says Justice Coleman, “Nothing at all in the wording of Section 97-3-79 prohibits the trial judge from setting a penalty of years greater than the life expectancy of the one convicted.”
This is superficially correct to one who’s only skimmed the ops (like me earlier this afternoon), or, upon due consideration, to a 9th-grader. It is not, however, particularly defensible as a judicial interpretation. True, the phrase “any term not less than . . .” does not specify an upper bound. But that phrase is not meant to be read alone. It is supposed to be read as part of the statute as a whole. And, as Tom Freeland chided me on Twitter, ” Defendant win on life sentence ought to limit judge’s sentence. Otherwise why jury?”
Why jury, indeed? This question does not seem to trouble Justice Coleman, or the other justices who agreed with him. It ought to, unless, of course, one does not particularly care about juries. The Legislature evidently thought that a jury’s being the one to decide whether to impose a life sentence was important enough to write it into the statute. Perhaps they did not spell out that the judge was not to impose a life sentence himself because they expected a little more judiciousness from the state’s highest judges.
So, look what happens: in the name of honoring the Legislature, and not “rewriting statutes,” Justice Coleman and some of his colleagues endorse . . . rewriting the statute, to allow a judge to impose a sentence that the Legislature had reserved to the power of the jury alone. This example illustrates how silly much of the “rewriting the statute” argumentation is, because the question is what the Legislature meant, to which the words are the main guide. If Justice Chandler and those joining his opinion are correct, the Legislature’s meaning is being flouted by the Coleman interpretation.
And in this instance, not even the words are being followed, because the “any term . . .” language isn’t being taken in context. The method of argumentation that claims that clause has no logical bearing on the range of sentence that the judge can impose is simply perverse. It certainly should be ashamed to call itself “judicial.”
… Note that this arrogation of judicial power itself expressly frustrates a limitation on judicial power imposed by the Legislature: juries, not judges, were supposed to have the sole power to impose a life sentence in this instance. Justice Coleman would evidently not respect this limitation, and seize for the bench what the Legislature sought to reserve for the people. That just makes the lip service to respecting the people’s elected Legislature all the more ironic.