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Last Week at The 6th Circuit: Substantive Unreasonableness, Maiden Voyages, and Railroaded State Law

No arguments at the court last week, but we received 13 published opinions and 9 unpublished opinions. Plus, as we’ll discuss later this week, one white-hot denial from en banc review that produced four separate opinions. Here’s what you may have missed:

A substantively unreasonable sentence – A divided Sixth Circuit panel vacated the sentence of Davian Warren as substantively unreasonable(!) in United States v. Warren. That doesn’t happen every day. Though Warren, the government, and the Guidelines all agreed that a 51-to-63-month sentence was appropriate, the district court imposed the statutory maximum of 120 months’ imprisonment, relying heavily on Warren’s extensive criminal history.

Chief Judge Guy Cole, joined by Judge Bernice Donald, reasoned in this unpublished opinion that the sentencing guidelines already considered Warren’s criminal history. Effectively double-counting that factor could not “justify such a stark departure from the guidelines. Judge Batchelder dissented, emphasizing Warren’s “stunning eleven felony convictions over nine years,” making the upward departure “necessary to protect the public.”

A not substantively unreasonable sentence – As Warren shows, a sentence can be unreasonably long. But, if a sentence is at the bottom of the proposed Sentencing Guidelines range, it is (presumptively) not unreasonable. As brand-new Judge Chad Readler wrote in United States v. Muchow, only if the district court acted in an “arbitrary manner, considered impermissible factors, or assigned unreasonable weight to a permissible factor” can a sentence be considered unreasonable. Otherwise, a sentence within the Guidelines (such as this child-porn sentence of 21+ years for a single count) is presumptively reasonable. This concise affirmance, joined by Chief Judge Cole and Judge Stranch, serves as Judge Readler’s introduction to the F.3d—his first published opinion.

And who doesn’t love a good railroad case? City councils and subsidiaritans, that’s who.

In 1966, the city of Sebree, Kentucky enacted an ordinance requiring CSX’s predecessor to obtain approval before undertaking maintenance or construction that would change the grade of the city’s railroad crossings. On Tuesday, however, a unanimous panel in CSX Transportation v. Sebree held the ordinance was void and preempted by federal law.

Because the ordinance would force CSX “to utilize a maintenance method that is no longer safe”—removing rather than replacing fouled ballast from underneath the tracks—Judges Cole, Batchelder, and Donald held the law was void as against public policy. The federal Termination Act, moreover, grants the Surface Transportation Board exclusive jurisdiction over the construction and operation of railroads. Because the scope of the Termination Act’s preemption provision broadly applies to any state law “managing or governing rail transportation,” the ordinance fell for this second reason as well.

© Copyright 2019 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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Benjamin Beaton Litigation Attorney Squire Patton Boggs Law Firm
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Benjamin Beaton is a litigator who handles complex appeals, trial proceedings and regulatory disputes. He has authored more than a dozen briefs at the US Supreme Court, where he previously served as a law clerk, and drafted dozens more in the federal courts of appeal and state supreme courts. In trial proceedings across the country, Ben has tried cases, briefed and argued dispositive motions, defended and examined high-profile witnesses and negotiated settlements. Outside the courtroom, Ben has drawn on his governmental experience to counsel a Fortune 100 CEO appearing before a US Senate...

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