WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist scolded Congress today for not consulting with the judiciary before enacting legislation that limits the ability of judges to impose lighter sentences than specified in federal guidelines.
In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Rehnquist lamented what he called "dramatic changes to laws governing the federal sentencing process."
The changes were tucked into an anticrime bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in April.
It targeted child kidnappers, molesters, and pornographers and included a national Amber Alert network.
But it also included a provision sponsored by Representative Tom Feeney, Republican of Florida, and supported by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, that reduced federal judges' discretion in sentencing criminals, and required reports to Congress on any judge who departs from sentencing guidelines.
Collecting this information on judges, Rehnquist said, is "troubling." He said cataloguing such data "could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties."
In the past, Rehnquist has suggested that the information could be used to conduct witch hunts against judges who appear soft on crime.
In the chief judge's 21-page report, he lectured Congress on the importance of a strong working relationship between the judicial and legislative branches, and he cited historical examples where the two arms of government consulted on drafting laws.
"During the last year, it seems the traditional interchange between the Congress and the Judiciary broke down," Rehnquist wrote.
He complained that the measure changing judges' sentencing authority was enacted "without any consideration of the views of the judiciary."
And he added, "It surely improves the legislative process at least to ask the judiciary its views on such a significant piece of legislation."
Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, said Rehnquist has a legitimate complaint.
Congress adopted "rules and procedures that really are quite unacceptable as far as the judges go because it so restricts their discretion and so straitjackets the process that it really has caused a lot of consternation," Cheh said. "Judges have resigned. Judges are complaining."
The new law means "the sentencing process is even more removed from the judge . . . and placed more heavily in the hands of prosecutors," she added.
Before the new law, prosecutors had long complained that judges had too much leeway in imposing sentences.
Supporters of the measure argue that it was needed to ensure fair and equal sentencing justice throughout the judiciary. House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, said judges were too often handing down sentences less than those specified in federal guidelines.
"The Feeney amendment seeks to correct these sentencing disparities so that one person doesn't receive a sentence three times as long as another person committing the same crime," Sensenbrenner said in a statement responding to Rehnquist's report.
The Judicial Conference of the United States -- a 27-judge body that sets policy for federal trial judges, appeals judges and others -- voted in September to support overturning the law.
Democratic senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and others have introduced legislation that would nullify Feeney's amendment.