Biden Taps Mississippi Judge As U.S. Sentencing Commission’s First Black Chair

a photo shows Judge Reeves standing in a doorway with a finger over his mouth and his other fingers resting under his chin
President Joe Biden nominated U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi to lead the U.S. Sentencing Commission. If confirmed, he would become the agency’s first black chair. Photo by Megan Bean / Mississippi State University

A Mississippi federal judge could soon become the first Black chair of the United States Sentencing Commission after President Joe Biden announced a slate of nominees on Wednesday. The president nominated U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi to lead the bipartisan agency, which Congress created in 1984.

“The Commission was created to reduce sentencing disparities and promote transparency and proportionality in criminal sentencing,” Biden said in a statement yesterday. “The Commission has lacked a quorum since 2019, which has prevented it from doing critical business. 

“Today, President Biden is pleased to announce the nominations of these individuals—a bipartisan slate including the first Black chair of the organization—whose confirmations would allow the Commission to conduct its important work.”

If confirmed to the commission, Reeves would be its eighth chair, but would also continue in his role as a federal judge in Jackson. He has served as a judge for the Southern District of Mississippi since 2010, when then-President Barack Obama appointed him.

The judge’s rulings have made headlines over the years. In a 2020 opinion, he criticized qualified immunity, which he called a “legal doctrine” that “judges have invented … to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing.” 

When Reeves sentenced three white men for the brutal 2011 murder of James Craig Anderson, a Black man, he delivered a speech in the courtroom that made national headlines. 

“Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget,” the judge said.

In 2014, Reeves ruled that Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state same-sex marriage bans nationwide. In 2018, he issued an opinion finding Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban unconstitutional under the existing Roe v. Wade precedent, but noting that its authors likely passed it in hopes of triggering a U.S. Supreme Court case to challenge that 1973 ruling.

“With the recent changes in the membership of the Supreme Court, it may be that the state believes divine providence covered the Capitol when it passed this legislation,” the judge wrote. “Time will tell. If overturning Roe is the state’s desired result, the state will have to seek that relief from a higher court. For now, the United States Supreme Court has spoken.”

On appeal, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Reeves’ ruling, but the U.S. Supreme Court appears set to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban and overturn Roe v. Wade after a draft of the opinion leaked earlier this month.

In April, Judge Reeves declared that Hinds County inmates live in unsafe conditions as he wrote his second contempt order against the county for the way it runs its jail, writing that “detainees spend most of their time in the dark, both in their cells and in the dayroom.”

In a tweet Wednesday, U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Black or Democratic congressman, said he supports Biden’s decision to appoint Reeves to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

“It is a pleasure to witness the first Black Judge to be appointed CHAIR to the United States Sentencing Commission,” Thompson said.

In a statement yesterday, U.S. Sentencing Commission Acting Chair Charles R. Breyer welcomed the news, saying that the lack of a quorum on the commission has left federal courts “without uniform national sentencing standards relating to important sentencing decisions, particularly as it relates to compassionate release amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“A reconstituted Sentencing Commission is vital to ensuring fairness and effectiveness of federal sentencing guidelines and policy,” he said. “I thank these nominees for their willingness to serve in this important capacity and look forward to a swift confirmation process.”

Biden’s other nominees to the commission include Laura Mate for vice chair; Claire McCusker Murray for vice chair; Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo for commissioner; Judge Claria Horn Boom for commissioner; Judge John Gleeson for commissioner; and Candice C. Wong for commissioner.

The nominees, including Judge Reeves, must earn approval from the U.S. Senate. If approved, each will serve six-year terms.

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