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Kisor role: how often is deference to the federal sentencing guidelines’ commentary litigated?


In addition to starting with a terrible pun, the title of my post reflects my uncertainty about how much to make of the (slow-burn) uncertainty regarding application of the federal sentencing guidelines’ commentary.  It is now over three years since the Supreme Court in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400 (2019), recast for federal courts “the deference they give to agencies … in construing agency regulations.”  The Kisor case had nothing to do with the federal sentencing guidelines, but lower courts have since grappled with whether and when Kisor means that the commentary to the guidelines no longer should always be followed.    

This Kisor question is on my mind because a helpful colleague made sure I did not miss the Third Circuit’s work last week in US v. Adair, No. 20-1463 (3d Cir. June 30, 2022) (available here).  The panel in Adair does a thorough job explaining how Kisor has been understood (by some circuits) to recalibrate whether and how sentencing courts must show deference to the the guidelines’ commentary.  But so far a majority of circuits have not read Kisor to require changing the general tendency to treat guidelines’ commentary as binding just like the actual guidelines (as the Supreme Court suggested back in Stinson v. US, 508 U.S. 36 (1993)). 

I flagged this issue in this post last year noting a big Sixth Circuit ruling, US v. Riccardi, 989 F.3d 476 (6th Cir. 2021), which held that certain commentary was an “improper expansion” of the meaning of “loss” in a fraud case.  I thought the Riccardi ruling could lead to lots of Kisor-impacted litigation because many fraud cases involve commentary that arguably expands on the guideline term “loss.”  And yet, this issue recently merited only a single footnote in the USSC’s recent “Loss Calculation” Primer, leading me to think this issue is not actually being litigated much. 

I know there have been at least a few cert petitions urging the Supreme Court to take up what Kisor means for the guidelines and their commentary, but perhaps the Justices do not yet see this issue roiling the lower courts enough to demand its intervention.  That said, I have noticed that a number of recent student notes on this topic:

So, dear readers, it is mostly law students spending lots of time on this intricate issue or are a lot more litigants and lower courts grappling with this Kisor role than I can see?


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