Bipartisan lawmakers urge Biden to prioritize sentencing panel nominees

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REUTERS/Chip East

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(Reuters) - Two Democratic and Republican lawmakers in a letter on Monday urged President Joe Biden to prioritize filling vacancies that have left the U.S. Sentencing Commission without a quorum, saying the situation has stalled criminal justice reform.

U.S. Representatives Kelly Armstrong, Republican of North Dakota, and Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said the vacancies have "forestalled the important work of updating and establishing new sentencing guidelines."

A White House spokesperson had no immediate comment.

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The commission lost its quorum in January 2019, a month after former Republican President Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at easing harsh sentencing for non-violent offenders and at reducing recidivism.

Armstrong and Raskin said the lack of quorum also meant the commission cannot update the advisory sentencing guidelines needed to help implement the law, resulting potentially in its uneven application by judges across the country.

"It is imperative that the vacancies are expeditiously filled so the Commission can continue its work to improve the federal criminal justice system," the lawmakers wrote.

The seven-person panel's lone remaining member, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, told Reuters this month he would be "surprised and dismayed" if Biden did not pick nominees by early 2022 and urged him to help restore its quorum.

Breyer's own term expired on Oct. 31 but he can remain on the commission for up to a year more unless a replacement is confirmed. Armstrong and Raskin cited his potential departure as another reason to act.

Breyer and others have said the lack of a quorum meant the commission could not advise judges on whether under the First Step Act inmates could secure compassionate release amid the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in inconsistent rulings.

The commission's seven members must include four federal judges, and no more than four members can be from the same party. Trump tapped five nominees in August 2020, but the Senate never acted on them.

Read more:

U.S. sentencing panel's last member Breyer urges Biden to revive commission

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.