Appellate Review of Sentence Explanations: Learning from the Wisconsin and Federal Experiences

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Publication Information

Michael M. O'Hear, Appellate Review of Sentence Explanations: Learning from the Wisconsin and Federal Experiences, 93 Marq. L. Rev. 751 (2009)

Source Publication

93 Marquette Law Review 751 (2009)


For at least half a century, reformers have urged American appellate courts to play a more active role in the sentencing process. Outside a small number of jurisdictions with binding sentencing guidelines, however, the appellate courts have generally failed to establish a meaningful role for themselves. The present article focuses on one particular function that appellate courts might usefully perform: that is, reviewing the adequacy of the explanations given by trial-court judges to justify their sentencing decisions. Such “explanation review” is conceptually distinct from substantive review of the sentence: the former asks whether the sentence has been adequately justified, while the latter asks whether the sentence could be adequately justified. As a matter of formal doctrine, explanation review is already an accepted feature of the sentencing law in several jurisdictions. But courts have struggled to give the explanation requirement coherent content, and few sentences are actually overturned on the basis of inadequate explanation. The difficulties may stem, in part, from the courts’ failure to appreciate what may be achieved through rigorous explanation review. Against this backdrop, the purposes of the present article are threefold. First, the article makes the case for robust explanation review, identifying several useful purposes that are plausibly served by a systematically enforced explanation requirement. Second, the article describes and critiques the explanation review jurisprudence in two specific jurisdictions, Wisconsin and the federal system. Finally, drawing on the best parts of the Wisconsin and federal case law, the article proposes a set of principles that may be used to give explanation review more precise and rigorous content.