Chicago crook’s case highlights Supreme Court nominee’s black-and-white approach
Amy Coney Barrett, a federal appeals judge in Chicago, was asked Tuesday during her Senate confirmation hearing to explain her dissenting appeals-court opinion in convicted kidnapper Hector Uriarte’s case. She said she thinks the majority allowed “policy goals” to overshadow the text of the law.
A Chicago criminal’s case has provided a window into Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s literal reading of the law.
During Tuesday’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barrett was asked about Hector Uriarte. In 2013, Uriarte was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in a home invasion, kidnapping and robbery crew that included a former Chicago cop.
Uriarte appealed and in May, a federal judge slashed his prison term to 20 years under the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law passed in 2018. Prosecutors then challenged Uriarte’s reduced sentence and last month, the federal appeals court in Chicago upheld it by a vote of 9-3.
Barrett, who’s on the appeals court here, wrote the dissenting opinion. She’s considered an “originalist” or “textualist” because she focuses on the letter of the law as opposed to the intent of Congress.
“We had a dispute over what the plain text of the statute required,” she told Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Tuesday, adding, “It was a very, very difficult case.”
Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, pushed for the First Step Act to promote rehabilitation and reduce prison costs. Grassley wanted to know why Barrett didn’t go along with the majority in the Uriarte opinion.
“I thought that the majority had permitted the policy goals of the act to supersede the text,” Barrett said.
The First Step Act doesn’t apply to inmates who were convicted of a gun offense and sentenced before 2018 when the law was enacted. The question for the appeals court was whether the First Step Act applied to Uriarte’s original sentence in 2013 — or to this year’s reduced sentence.
The majority of the court voted that Uriarte was technically “un-sentenced” when the gun part of his 2013 conviction was tossed out in 2017. He wasn’t “sentenced” until this year, so he was eligible under the First Step Act.
But Barrett, writing for herself and two other dissenting judges, disagreed, saying the clock started when Uriarte’s original sentence was imposed in 2013. That means Uriarte wasn’t eligible for relief under the 2018 law, she wrote.
“Uriarte indisputably had been sentenced before the First Step Act took effect,” she wrote in a literal reading of the text of the statute. Her dissent even defined the meaning of the word “a.”
“Here, Congress picked a line: the applicability of the First Step Act turns on whether a sentence had been imposed on the defendant before the date of enactment,” Barrett wrote.
Uriarte, 41, is now seeking “compassionate release” under the First Step Act because he says he’s at risk of getting COVID-19 in prison. Prosecutors have opposed his request.
Glenn Lewellen, a 64-year-old former cop, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in the crew. In May, Lewellen got a compassionate release under the First Step Act because he said he was at risk of contracting the coronavirus, too. Prosecutors opposed his release, saying he was the “CEO and guardian angel” of the crew, but Judge Joan Gotschall said he “rehabilitated himself, personally and spiritually.”