Excessive punishment

The New York Times (free login required) has an interesting story on the language used by President Bush in his statement announcing the commutation of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s sentence. Bush’s arguments track closely with the arguments made by defense attorneys and legal scholars across the country who for years have complained about the arbitrary harshness and inflexibility with federal sentencing guidelines.

By yesterday morning, in fact, Mr. Bush’s arguments for keeping Mr. Libby out of prison had become an unexpected gift to defense lawyers around the country, who scrambled to make use of them in their own cases.

“The president of the United States has come in on his own and said, ’30 months is not reasonable in this case,’ ” said Susan James, an Alabama lawyer representing Don E. Siegelman, the state’s former governor, who is appealing a sentence he received last week of 88 months for obstruction of justice and other charges.

Given that presidential pardon and commutation authority is plenary and creates no precedent, Scooter Libby’s commutation and the President’s statement are likely to be important rhetorically to critics of sentencing guidelines, but will not by themselves alter policy.