Form too often is elevated way above substance and the Sixth Circuit's decision in United States v. Mitchell is a disturbing illustration of the point, as well as more wasted and empty motion that could be thought reasonable.
The defendant, Stephen Mitchell, had three prior felony convictions when he was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(felon in possession of a firearm). The district court found that he fell under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and sentenced him to 250 months (20 years, 10 months). This was in about 2000.
In the intervening 18 years or so since Mitchell was sentenced initially, the Supreme Court has invalidated portions of the ACCA. See Welch v. United States, 136 SCt 1257 (2016); Johnson v. United States, 135 SCT 2551 (2015). These decisions benefited Mitchell, because they precluded application of the ACCA to him. This meant that the longest sentence that Mitchell could receive lawfully was the 10 year maximum that goes with a violated of § 922(g). Problem was, though, Mitchell had already served in prison about 7-8 years more than the law allows.
The district court imposed a sentence of time served and three years supervised release. This would seem enough to end it; Mitchell had already served many more years than could be imposed lawfully.
Nevertheless, both the government and Mitchell appealed.
The government's appeal went nowhere, but the Sixth Circuit ruled that the district court erred in imposing a sentence of "time served." The explanation: a time-served sentence "is inappropriate relief when the habeas petitioner has served a sentence greater than the statutory maximum." Accordingly, the case was remanded for resentencing.
One wonders why? The district court can't impose a sentence of 10 years, the statutory maximum, or even less, because Mitchell has already served many more than 10 years. It would seem to bring the judicial system into disrepute to engage in such fiction. What other alternatives are there, and, whatever they may be, what is accomplished by trundling through them. This is form over substance and wasted motion near its highest degree.