Supreme Court Rules that Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine Does Not Apply to Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Alexander J. Segal's picture


On March 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision titled Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544 (2017) [PDF version]. Beckles is not an immigration case and is unlikely to have a direct effect on immigration law. However, it is tangentially related to the Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. __ (2015) [PDF version]. We discussed Johnson in an article [see article] and broadly in the context of the ongoing litigation surrounding the Ninth Circuit decision in Dimaya v. Lynch, 803 F.3d 1110 (9th Cir. 2015) [see article], which is now before the Supreme Court as Sessions v. Dimaya, 15-1498 [see article; oral argument recap].

As a matter of interest, we will review the Beckles decision in brief and explain how it is related to Johnson.

Brief Overview of Beckles

In Johnson, the Supreme Court held that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) was void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The ACCA is a sentence-enhancement statute. In Johnson, the residual clause had necessitated the imposition of a harsher sentence if certain predicate convictions existed.

Beckles addressed the same predicate conviction as did Johnson. However, the issue at hand in Beckles was whether the federal sentencing guidelines may be challenged on vagueness grounds. The sentencing guideline at issue in Beckles is worded identically to the ACCA's residual clause that was held unconstitutionally vague in Johnson. However, the holding in Johnson, finding a criminal sentence-enhancement statute void for vagueness, did not result in the identically worded sentencing guidelines being susceptible to a vagueness challenge.

In Beckles, the Supreme Court rejected the appellant's vagueness challenge 7-0. However, while the Justices were unanimous in the result, they were not all in accord in the reasoning.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion of the court, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito. Writing for the five-Justice majority, Justice Thomas took the position that the void for vagueness doctrine does not apply to sentencing guidelines. The opinion distinguished sentencing guidelines, which “merely guide the exercise of a court's discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range,” from a statute that mandate a “specific sentence.” However, while holding that sentencing guidelines are immune from the void-for-vagueness doctrine, Justice Thomas made clear that sentencing guidelines are not immune from constitutional scrutiny in general. The decision notes that sentencing guidelines may be, under certain circumstances, scrutinized under the due process clause.

Justice Anthony Kennedy authored a concurring opinion which stated that cases may arise “in which the formulation of a sentencing provision leads to a sentence, or pattern of sentencing, challenged as so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional concerns.” While taking the position that “[t]he existing principles for defining vagueness cannot be transported uncritically to the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing,” Justice Kennedy did not seem to categorically foreclose the idea that sentencing guidelines could be challenged for arbitrariness, albeit “[s]ome other expliciation of the constitutional limitations would likely be required.”1

Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor each wrote opinions concurring in the judgment only. This means that they agreed with the result in the specific case only. Both Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor found it unnecessary for the majority to reach a decision on the applicability of the void-for-vagueness doctrine to federal sentencing guidelines. Justice Sotomayor went even further, stating that she found the Court's decision regarding the inapplicability of void-for-vagueness doctrine to federal sentencing guidelines to be “deeply unsound.” Justice Ginsburg took the position that the Court should have deferred consideration of whether the void-for-vagueness doctrine applies to federal sentencing guidelines until a case that requires a ruling on the issue comes before the Court.

Please note that Associate Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration of Beckles.


Although Beckles is unlikely to implicate immigration law as directly as Johnson, it is an interesting look at how the Court considered Johnson with regard to federal sentencing guidelines. The decision constitutes binding precedent on all courts and administrative adjudicators across the United States. In limited contexts, where the length of a sentence is determinative of whether immigration penalties attach, Beckles eliminates one avenue for challenging federal sentencing guidelines. The decision is relatively short and well worth reading for those who want to see the detailed analysis of Justice Thomas, Justice Kennedy (wrote a concurring opinion), Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Sotomayor.

Please continue to follow our site for more news about new Supreme Court decisions and immigration law, including the upcoming decision in Sessions v. Dimaya.


  1. Nora Demleitner at SCOTUSblog took the position that Justice Kennedy “sought to keep the door ajar for possible challenge” to a sentence of pattern of sentencing that implicates constitutional concerns for arbitrariness. Demleitner suggests that this view is at tension with Justice Thomas's opinion. See Demleitner, Nora, “Opinion analysis: Court immunizes advisory sentencing guidelines against vagueness challenges,”, (Mar. 7, 2017)
Supreme Court Rules that Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine Does Not Apply to Federal Sentencing Guidelines