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Dennis v. Terris

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

June 21, 2019

Quincy Dennis, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
J.A. Terris, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:17-cv-14087-Victoria A. Roberts, District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          Quincy Dennis, Milan, Michigan, pro se. Shane Cralle, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: ROGERS, SUTTON, and READLER, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          Sutton, Circuit Judge.

         The President has the "Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States." U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 1. But does the President's exercise of that authority invariably create a new executive judgment that fully replaces the judicial judgment?

         Quincy Dennis committed a string of drug offenses, leading to a mandatory life sentence in 1997. In 2017, President Obama commuted his sentence to 30 years. Dennis filed this § 2241 habeas petition, arguing that he should have faced only a 20-year mandatory sentence. The district court held that it had no authority to question the commuted sentence and dismissed the petition as moot. Because the commutation did not alter the reality that Dennis continues to serve a judicial sentence and because he could obtain a sentence of fewer than 30 years if he obtained the requested relief, the petition is not moot. Even so, the petition lacks merit, and accordingly we deny it.

         In 1997, a jury convicted Dennis of three federal drug crimes: attempting to distribute cocaine base, possessing cocaine base with intent to distribute it, and possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it. Before trial, the government alerted Dennis that it might seek a sentencing enhancement. 21 U.S.C. § 851. That put Dennis on notice that, if convicted, he faced a mandatory life sentence based on two prior Ohio drug convictions.

         That's what happened. After the jury found Dennis guilty, the district court sentenced him to life in prison on the cocaine base convictions and a concurrent 30-year term on the cocaine offense.

         Dennis sought collateral relief from the courts on several fronts. Each failed. Then Dennis received a different form of relief. President Obama conditionally commuted Dennis's sentence to a term of 30 years. To receive this benefit, Dennis had to enroll in a residential drug abuse program and return a signed acceptance of the commutation. Dennis honored his end of the bargain.

         Convinced that a lingering error marred his original sentence, Dennis filed a § 2241 habeas petition in December 2017. One of his Ohio convictions, he maintains, does not count as a felony under the recidivism enhancement. If true, he points out, he would have received a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, not a mandatory life sentence. The district court dismissed Dennis's petition as moot on two grounds: that it had no authority to alter the commuted sentence and that Dennis now serves a commuted executive sentence, not the original judicial sentence.

         At issue is the interaction of an executive branch power (to pardon individuals convicted of crimes) with a limitation on a judicial branch power (to resolve only live cases or controversies).

         Begin with the Article II pardon power. The Constitution says that the President "shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 1. The Framers modeled this provision on the pardon power of the English Crown. Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256, 260-64 (1974). That English practice thus illuminates "the operation and effect of a pardon," making the one a helpful lantern in seeing the other. United States v. Wilson, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 150, 160 (1833) (Marshall, C.J.). As an act of executive mercy, id.; see 4 William Blackstone, Commentaries *389-90, the pardon power includes the authority to commute sentences in whole or in part, Schick, 419 U.S. at 260. The President may place conditions on a pardon or commutation. Ex parte Wells, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 307, 314-15 (1855). The only potential limits on the President's pardon power are constitutional in nature, and even those are little defined. Schick, 419 U.S. at 267; see Ohio Adult Parole Auth. v. Woodard, 523 U.S. 272, 279-85 (1998) (opinion of Rehnquist, C.J.).

         Turn to Article III, which empowers and constrains the judicial branch. It vests "[t]he judicial Power of the United States" in the Supreme Court and any inferior federal courts that Congress creates. U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. One such power is to try crimes and sentence defendants. See Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2, 121 (1866). What the Constitution gives, however, it sometimes takes away. Courts may resolve only "Cases" or "Controversies." U.S. Const. art. III, ยง 2, cl. 1. That means we need a live cause-a conflict in which we are able to give a remedy to the winner-in order to ...


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