ILNews

Court: 'mistakes' in judge's sentence

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the sentence of man convicted of defrauding Medicaid because the District Court judge's sentencing transcript was "laced with apparent mistakes and misunderstandings."

In United States of America v. William J. Higdon, No. 07-3951, William Higdon appealed his 60-month sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Richard Young of the Southern District, Evansville Division. Higdon pleaded guilty to defrauding the Indiana Medicaid program, and the judge and parties agreed the sentencing guideline was 18 to 24 months. However, Judge Young sentenced Higdon to 60 months.

After reviewing the judge's sentencing transcript, the 7th Circuit found it to be filled with "mistakes and misunderstandings" that caused him to sentence Higdon to a prison term nearly three times the length of the midpoint of the sentencing guidelines, wrote Judge Richard Posner.

A sentencing judge is allowed to have his or her own penal philosophy at variance with that of the Sentencing Commission; however, a judge must think long and hard before substituting his or her own personal penal philosophy for that of the commission's, Judge Posner wrote.

According to the sentencing transcript, the federal appellate judges listed nine points in which they feel the judge may have made a mistake: from the judge apparently believing Medicaid fraud is more serious than other fraud because it is against the government to Judge Young's belief that Higdon would benefit from a long prison sentence so he could take advantage of educational and vocational training.

Six of the nine mistakes or misunderstandings the 7th Circuit identified seem unrelated to a legitimate philosophical difference between the judge and the Sentencing Commission. Three of the mistakes or omissions could reflect Judge Young's penal philosophy that differs from the commission, which is permitted, Judge Posner wrote.

The 7th Circuit had to rely on the transcript of Judge Young's oral remarks for the appeal, which caused the Circuit Court to suggest that judges who decide to impose an out-of-guideline sentence express their reasons in writing.

"The discipline of committing one's thoughts to paper not only promotes thoughtful consideration but also creates a surer path of communication with the reviewing court," Judge Posner wrote.
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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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