Supreme Court to weigh overturning separate-sovereigns doctrine in Gamble v. United States

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Katie Aguilera

Tomorrow, December 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments in a case that has the potential to overturn the long-standing legal doctrine of separate-sovereigns, or dual sovereignty.  This doctrine holds that the States’ governments and the Federal government are separate sovereign entities and can therefore prosecute a defendant for the same offense without violating the fifth amendment’s double jeopardy clause.  The case the court will hear tomorrow is Gamble v. United States.

Terance Martez Gamble, according to court documents, was convicted of second-degree robbery on September 4, 2008, in Alabama state court.  Seven years later, he was stopped while driving by a Mobile Police Department officer because one of his head lights was out.  The officer smelled marijuana and searched Gamble’s vehicle, finding marijuana, a digital scale, and a handgun.

On April 28, 2016, Gamble was indicted by a federal grand jury for possessing a firearm by a felon.  On May 27, 2016, Gamble was convicted in Alabama state court of being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm.  Both the federal indictment and the Alabama state conviction were for the same incident.

Gamble “moved to dismiss his federal indictment on double jeopardy grounds. The district court denied the motion, concluding that petitioner’s argument was foreclosed by binding precedent in this Court and the Eleventh Circuit holding that the federal government is a separate sovereign from an individual state and that the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prohibit separate prosecutions by separate sovereigns.”

Gamble pleaded guilty to the federal charge as part of a plea agreement, but he reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to dismiss on the grounds of double jeopardy.  He was sentenced for the federal charge to 46 months in prison that would run concurrently with the sentence he received from Alabama state.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has heard arguments in favor of overturning the separate-sovereigns doctrine.  In fact, according to the government’s brief in opposition, the Supreme Court has upheld the doctrine 20 times in the years between 1852 and 1959.

Many organizations have filed briefs in support of Gamble or in support of the United States in this case.   These range from the ACLU, military legal divisions, criminal defense lawyers, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch in support of Gamble, to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, National Congress of American Indians, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, National District Attorneys Association, National Sheriff’s Association and more in support of the government.  All the documents can be found here.

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and National Congress of American Indians argue in their brief that “overturning the Court’s long-standing precedent regarding the dual sovereign doctrine, which has allowed both tribal and the federal governments to prosecute for violations of their respective criminal laws, would have significant ramifications in Indian country. Not only would it undermine core principles of local control for criminal justice, it would preclude the effective prosecution of those who commit serious violent crimes against Native women and children.”

According to their brief, the Indian Civil Rights Act prohibits Tribal Courts from imposing sentences longer than a year for any criminal offense, with some exceptions where certain requirements are met and the sentence can be lengthened to three years.  This means there is often a reliance on the federal government to prosecute defendants in order for longer sentences to be imposed on them, providing greater protection for their victims.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Gamble and the separate-sovereigns doctrine is overturned, Tribal Nations will be required to “choose whether to prosecute a case before conclusion of the investigation that determines whether the U.S. Attorney will prosecute.”  If the Tribal courts decide to prosecute, the federal government will then be unable to charge the defendant for the same crime.  If they opt not to prosecute in hopes the federal government will, it’s possible the defendant will never face charges if the federal investigation doesn’t result in an indictment.

The brief argues “this Court should preserve the ‘separate sovereigns’ doctrine as applied to prosecution by both tribal governments and the federal government, either by rejecting Petitioner’s [Gamble] arguments in their entirety, or by making it clear that this Court’s decision in this case should not be read as addressing the unique considerations presented in the context of dual federal and tribal prosecution.”

According to this November 29, 2018 Argument Preview by Amy L. Howe, a ruling in favor of Gamble “could have widespread impact that could extend to prosecutions by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.”

The article goes on to state that the government warns of a variety of problems that would arise if the Supreme Court overturns the separate-sovereigns doctrine.  Howe writes, “under Gamble’s interpretation, the U.S. or a state government would not be able to prosecute a foreign terrorist if a foreign government had also tried him.”  Additionally, if the doctrine is overturned, it could “lead to a flood of challenges by inmates convicted by two different sovereigns who want to overturn the second conviction, even if it became final long ago.”

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) argues in support of overturning the separate-sovereigns doctrine in a lengthy brief. In this brief it states “when this Court last reaffirmed the ‘dual sovereignty’ exception to the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against successive prosecutions for the same crime, it did so to preserve the balance of power in our federalist system.  As a matter of both constitutional theory and historical practice, the states bore primary responsibility for defining and prosecuting general crime, with federal criminal law focused on relatively narrow and specific areas of federal interest.

But the balance between state and federal power to define and punish crime has shifted massively since the vitality of the dual sovereignty doctrine was last before this Court.  The federalization of criminal law over the intervening decades has given federal prosecutors the ability to bring coordinate federal charges for a wide array of conduct…In this hyperfederalized context, the federalist underpinnings of this Court’s prior dual-sovereignty decisions no longer reflect the reality of federal-state relations, and may well undermine, rather than support, an appropriate division of power.”

The ACLU makes a similar argument, noting that according to The Court and Overcriminalization by Michael Pierce, the United States criminal code contains 27,000 pages of federal criminal laws.  This was not the case when the Supreme Court upheld the separate-sovereigns doctrine in the past.  The increase in federal criminal laws greatly increases the risk of what was previously considered a rare occurrence–when  charges are brought against a defendant by a state and the federal government for the same offense.  This, the ACLU argues, is one of numerous important reason to do away with the separate-sovereigns doctrine.

The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Appellate Defense Division, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Member Advocacy and Legal Assistance—Appellate Defense, U.S. Air Force Appellate Defense Division, and the U.S. Army Defense Appellate Division filed a brief of Amici curiae in support of overturning the separate-sovereigns doctrine.  In it, they state:

“Amici ask this Court to overrule the separate-sovereigns exception so those who serve our country receive the proper Double Jeopardy protections of the Constitution, our basic charter of rights which they took an oath to defend with their lives.”

They go on to argue “…the separate-sovereigns exception allows the military to overrule the verdict of a state jury, with its jurors selected from a representative cross-section of the community, by meeting a lesser standard:  currently a two-thirds majority vote for conviction by a panel of military members, each senior to the defendant and picked by the defendant’s commander.”

The timing of this case is notable considering the potential effects to Robert Mueller’s investigation.  It has been speculated that people convicted of federal crimes as a result of Mueller’s investigation could receive pardons from President Trump and without the separate-sovereign doctrine, the States wouldn’t be able to bring charges against those people.  It has even been suggested that the push to get Judge Brett Kavanaugh confirmed and seated on the Supreme Court was to ensure a majority vote in favor of overturning the separate-sovereigns doctrine for that very reason.

However, this October 4, 2018 Slate article by Teri Kanefield and Jed Shugarman explains how Gamble v. United States is unlikely to have much, if any, effect on Mueller’s investigation.  They write, “in theory, a Trump associate could plead guilty to a federal crime, receive a pardon, and Gamble could protect him from a state prosecution.  In reality, special counsel Robert Mueller seems to have already strategized around this problem.

All such hypotheticals aside, though, double jeopardy is a real problem affecting the rights of ordinary citizens.”

Ordinary citizens such as Terance Gamble, Benjamin Cunha, and countless others, who have faced charges from both state and federal prosecutors for the same offense.  These convictions result in longer prison sentences and contribute to the mass incarceration crisis this nation faces.

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