President Biden will nominate Judge Carlton W. Reeves U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, as chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Reeves is slated to be the eighth chair since the commission’s creation.
Reeves has more than a decade of experience on the federal bench, nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2010. If confirmed, he will be the first Black person to lead the U.S. Sentencing Commission since it was first created during the Reagan Administration.
Rep. Bennie Thompson called Reeves an “excellent” member of the federal judiciary in Mississippi.
“I support the appointment of Judge Carlton Reeves on being named head of the United States Sentencing Commission,” Thompson said. “It is a pleasure to witness the first Black judge to be appointed to the United States Sentencing Commission.”
Reeves has made his mark in several ways since joining the judiciary. He is the second Black person appointed to the federal bench in Mississippi. Even as a member of the federal bench, Reeves has not shied away from speaking up about injustice.
He made a powerful statement in 2015 ahead of sentencing three white men for the racist killing of James Craig Anderson in Jackson in 2011. NPR’s “Code Switch” covered Reeves’s speech, noting that the three white men brutalized Anderson during an attack in which they also yelled “white power.”
Reeves tied Anderson’s murder to the long history of Black lives taken by lynching and expressed a vision for Mississippi and justice. The speech is a history lesson about Mississippi and the brutality that gripped the state.
“Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings,” Reeves said.
He also recounted the lives lost during the Civil Rights movement and questioned what it would take for the state to truly become a “New Mississippi.
“New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in,” he continued. “Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi … causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.”
Reeves again made headlines in 2019 for directly challenging former President Trump’s attacks on judges. According to CNN, “evoking the history of segregation in the South, Reeves publicly lambasted the President for his attacks on judges, questioned Trump’s commitment to diversity on the federal bench and called upon judges to do more to defend the judiciary.”
From his legal background and experience, Reeves is aware of the various flaws and disparities in the legal system. According to his original nomination questionnaire, Reeves mentioned among his notable litigations representing a Black candidate in a case alleging improper behavior by several white poll workers involving illegal discarding of Black voters’ ballots.
His experience and understanding of how systemic issues impact the legal system should be seen as an asset to the Sentencing Commission’s work and hopefully lead to swift confirmation. Reeves’s nomination as chair aligns with Biden’s overall commitment to expanding the representation in the judiciary and the federal government.
Over 25 percent of the judges nominated by Biden have been Black, with several notable historic appointments including soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson previously did a tour of duty on the Sentencing Commission, serving as vice-chair.
As an independent branch of the federal judiciary, the Sentencing Commission consists of seven voting members serving six-year terms. The members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Except for an acting chair, the Sentencing Commission has been vacant, giving the president an opportunity for a clean slate of appointments. Created in 1984 under the Sentencing Reform Act, the commission addresses sentencing disparities and promotes transparency and proportionality in federal sentencing.
The Sentencing Commission has lacked a quorum since January 2019 under former President Trump. This has prevented the commission from enacting policies such as handling the issue of compassionate release during the pandemic.
While all commission members are not required to be federal judges, at least three should be members of the federal judiciary. The Sentencing Commission cannot have more than four members from the same political party, ensuring a bipartisan composition.