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Mistretta v. United States

Citation. Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 109 S. Ct. 647, 102 L. Ed. 2d 714, 57 U.S.L.W. 4102 (U.S. Jan. 18, 1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Congress adopted the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (Act) in an effort to address the widespread disparity in the scope and extent of punishment in criminal cases in the United States. The Act created the United States Sentencing Commission devise guidelines for sentencing, and John M. Mistretta (Petitioner) challenged this as an unconstitutional delegation.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The “intelligible principle test” applies to congressional delegations. As long as the act by Congress includes an intelligible principle to which the delegee is directed to conform, the legislative action is not a forbidden delegation of legislative power. The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled it “constitutionally sufficient if Congress clearly delineates the general policy, the public agency which it to apply it, and the boundaries of this delegated authority.”


Petitioner was indicted in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri on three counts centering in a cocaine sale, and moved to have the promulgated guidelines ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress delegated excessive authority to the Sentencing Commission to structure the guidelines.


By delegating the power to promulgate sentencing guidelines for every federal criminal offense to the Sentencing Commission, did Congress grant excessive legislative discretion in violation of the nondelegation doctrine?


No. The Act included sufficient guidelines for the Commission to follow. Congress directed the Commission to consider a list of seven factors in its formation of offense categories: the grade of the offense; aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the crime; the nature and degree of the harm caused by the crime; the community view of the gravity of the offense; the public concern generated by the crime; the deterrent effect that a sentence might have; and the current incidence of the offense. Dissent. While called “guidelines,” they had the full force and effect of laws, prescribing criminal sentences. Because the scope of the delegation is largely uncontrollable by the courts, we should be particularly rigorous in preserving the Constitution’s restrictions that deter excessive delegation. Concurrence. None.


The Act set forth more than an “intelligible principle” or minimal standards, and was a constitutional delegation of authority by Congress.

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