Court Battles

Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant

The Supreme Court split along unusual lines Thursday to rule in favor of a criminal defendant in a case that saw two of the most conservative justices form a bare majority with the court’s three liberals.

The 5-4 court sided with a defendant who argued he should not be subject to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a 1984 law that imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on certain repeat offenders who are caught illegally possessing a gun.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s more liberal members, wrote the majority opinion, which ruled that defendant Charles Borden Jr.’s prior convictions did not rise to a level that required enhanced sentencing.

The ACCA applies only to career criminals with three or more prior convictions for violent felonies. But because one of Borden’s prior convictions was for aggravated assault that he committed recklessly, rather than with a greater degree of purpose in mind, his rap sheet did not require mandatory heightened sentencing, the court ruled. 

“The question here is whether a criminal offense can count as a ‘violent felony’ if it requires only a mens rea of recklessness — a less culpable mental state than purpose or knowledge,” Kagan wrote. “We hold that a reckless offense cannot so qualify.”

Joining Kagan were fellow liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch. Clarence Thomas, the court’s staunchest conservative, also joined the majority’s judgment but wrote separately to express his reluctance with the outcome.

In dissent was Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by fellow conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett.

“Today’s decision overrides Congress’s policy judgment about the risk posed by serial violent felons who unlawfully possess firearms,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And today’s decision will have significant real-world consequences.”

The case arose after prosecutors sought to apply the ACCA’s sentencing guidelines to Borden after he pleaded guilty to illegally possessing a gun.

A lower federal court and Cincinnati-based appeals court rejected Borden’s argument for leniency, which prompted his ultimately successful appeal to the Supreme Court.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas conservative justices criminal defendant Elena Kagan liberal justices Majority opinion Mandatory sentencing Neil Gorsuch Samuel Alito Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer Supreme Court Supreme Court justices

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