SCOTUS Case Blog: Setser vs. US

Constitutional Question

This case is about the interaction between government at the State level and at the Federal level. For this reason, it has to do with Article 4 and Amendment 10. Because it has to do with fairness of sentencing, it also is related to Amendment 7. Finally, the question is related to power in the judicial branch (the court system) and power in the executive branch (the prison system), and so it is a question of checks and balances.

The specific question is: If someone is charged with a state crime and a federal crime, and the state court has not yet determined a sentence, can the federal court order the federal sentence to be served consecutively to the not-yet-imposed state sentence?

Facts of the Case

In 2006, Monroe Setser, of Texas, was sentenced to five years of probation for possession of methamphetamine. A year later, he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of possession of 50 or more grams of methamphetamine, with intent to distribute. The crime was also an offense in the state of Texas, and so the federal court knew that Setser's possession charge could lead to a state sentence – not to mention to a revocation of his probation. Because of this, the federal court wanted to decide how all of those hypothetical sentences would interact. They decided that Setser's federal sentence would be served after any sentence that the state gave for the earlier possession crime, but at the same time as any sentence imposed for the 2007 possession-and-intent-to-sell crime.

The state court then sentenced Setser. For the 2006 crime, they revoked his parole and gave him five years in prison, and for the 2007 crime they gave him 10 years in prison. They ordered those two sentences to be served at the same time.

In 2010, he was paroled from the state crime and transferred to the federal prison system. The federal sentence was not shortened at all from time spent serving the state sentences.

Setser said that the court should not have the right to decide how his sentences were to be served, and so he appealed the federal sentence. The United States actually agrees with Setser, so the court appointed a man named Evan Young to argue the case against him.

Summary of the Arguments before the SCOTUS

Setser argued with that the prison system should have the right to decide how his sentences are to be served, and not the federal court. His argument is based on 18 U.S.C. §3584(a), a law which states that:

"If multiple terms of imprisonment are imposed on a defendant at the same time, or if a term of imprisonment is imposed on a defendant who is already subject to an undischarged term of imprisonment, the terms may run concurrently or consecutively… Multiple terms of imprisonment imposed at the same time run concurrently unless the court orders or the statute mandates that the terms are to run consecutively. Multiple terms of imprisonment imposed at different times run consecutively unless the court orders that the terms are to run concurrently."

His main argument is that, because his own circumstance does not fall under the specific cases outlined in the law, the judge of the federal court should not be able to decide how his sentences were to be served. Instead, he argues, the federal prison system should decide that matter at the end of his state term. He also states that, before that particular section was enacted, the Bureau of Prisons had the power to make sentences run at the same time – and so, since the statute does not apply to his particular case, the Bureau of Prisons should still have that right.

The counterargument is that the statute is a way of giving more power to courts, not specifying when they have power. In both of the situations outlined by the statute, the judge is allowed to decide whether to overwrite the default – so, even though Setser's particular case is not included in those situations, the judge should still be able to say how the sentences should be served.

Predictions on the outcome

The United States actually agrees with Setser. This makes me believe that the Supreme Court is likely to yield that the federal court did, indeed, make a mistake in specifying how Setser should serve his various sentences, even before the state sentences were decided.


Michael Dimino, Argument preview: Court to consider run-on sentences, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 23, 2011, 3:00 PM),