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A matter of no discretion

Federal district court judges are seen by many has having a position of great respect and authority. A lifetime appointment, at a decent salary, at least by most Americans' standards, it is in some sense the pinnacle of many a lawyer's legal career. Only a seat on a court of appeals bench is more prestigious and the U.S. Supreme Court only sees a few appointments during most judges' careers and requires extraordinary political connections.

Within their courtrooms, they reign supreme, and even when reviewed by a court of appeals, many matters are confined to the "sound discretion of the trial court judge." This is because the trial judge is in the courtroom, hears the arguments, sees the witnesses and can gauge the demeanor and credibility of each. 

But there is one area where they have no discretion.

Mandatory minimum sentences.

If an individual is convicted of possession of a certain amount of a Schedule 1 drug, such as meth, heroin or marijuana, the sentencing hearing becomes something of a pantomime, where all of the discussion is irrelevant and there is no such thing as a "mitigating factor."

These mandatory sentences were created by Congress as way of combating what was perceived of as an out-of-control drug epidemic. The only problem is, after 30 years of these mandatory minimums, drug use has remained unchanged.

For one Iowa federal district court judge, who has sent more than 4,000 individuals to prison, the unrelenting sameness and immutability of these sentences has led him to consider leaving his seat on the bench and returning to private practice in Des Moines.

He describes having to empty the emotional bathtub between cases, as he is forced to render sentences he believes are wrong.

Hard to imagine a more powerful, powerless figure.

Source: washingtonpost.com, "Against his better judgment," Eli Saslow, June 6, 2015

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