Dabney Friedrich – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Dabney Friedrich’s nomination to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was announced by President Trump on May 8, 2017, but was not formally nominated to the Senate until June 7.  While the cause of the delay is unknown, it is unlikely to hinder the well-qualified Friedrich’s path to the bench.

Background

Dabney Langhorne Friedrich was born June 19, 1967.  After receiving her Bachelor of Arts from Trinity University and diploma in legal studies from Oxford University she received her law degree from Yale Law School where she served as the senior editor on the Yale Journal on Regulation.  

Friedrich clerked for Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  She prosecuted criminal cases as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California and Eastern District of Virginia, and then served as Chief Crime Counsel to chairman Orrin Hatch of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Associate White House Counsel to the President during the George W. Bush Administration, where she assisted with the nomination and confirmation of federal judges.

In 2006, George W. Bush appointed Friedrich a Commissioner on the United States Sentencing Commission, the independent agency that issues sentencing guidelines and recommendations for federal judges and congressional review. She was re-nominated to the same position by Barack Obama, and has served on the Sentencing Commission through the recent expiration of her term at the end of 2016.  

History of the Seat

Friedrich was nominated to the vacancy left by Reggie Walton, who assumed senior status on December 31, 2015.  Judge Walton, a George W. Bush appointee was similarly a former prosecutor and was appointed to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, where he made recommendations to the President, Congress, and Attorney General regarding methods to curb incidents of rape among the incarcerated.  Judge Walton also served a seven-year term on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, being elevated to its presiding judge in 2013.  

On April 28, 2016, a few months after the seat opened up, President Obama nominated Judge Florence Pan, a judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to fill the vacancy.  Judge Pan received a hearing before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on July 13, and was unanimously approved on September 15.  However, at that point, Pan ran into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s blockade on judicial confirmations, and was ultimately returned unconfirmed.

Legal Background  

While Friedrich has extensive experience with criminal law both as a federal prosecutor, and as chief counsel to Sen. Hatch, it is her work on criminal sentencing that is likely to draw the most interest.  

During her time on the Sentencing Commission, Friedrich has worked to eliminate race-based disparities and establish sentencing uniformity.  In 2011, Friedrich joined the Sentencing Commission’s unanimous decision recommending that prisoners incarcerated for offenses involving crack cocaine be eligible for early release.  Friedrich also voted in favor of giving retroactive effect to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which drastically reduced recommended sentences for crack cocaine crimes, to fix the longstanding disparity in sentencing crack vs. powder cocaine crimes.  This allowed offenders who were imprisoned for crack offenses before the new law took effect to benefit as well.  In media comments about the changes, Friedrich noted that political support for sentencing reform will be accomplished by pressure in Congress to control the costs of the U.S. prison system.[1]  Friedrich has also stressed the importance for national uniformity of sentencing, and the efforts of the Department of Justice to provide consistent supervisory guidance to prosecutors across the country.[2]

Over the past six years, under Friedrich’s tenure, the Commission has taken a number of actions to address sentencing disparities and reduce the federal prison population.  In 2014 the Commission changed the offense levels associated with the drug quantity table (often referred to as the “Drugs Minus Two” amendment)—as a result, 28,544 prison sentences were reduced, following the review of each case by a federal judge.[3] Some of the most recent work of the Commission has included a unanimous vote to publish a proposed amendment that would exclude juvenile sentences from being considered in the calculation of the defendant’s criminal history score, following a May 2016 report by the Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group.[4]  Friedrich’s work on these matters suggests a pragmatic approach to criminal sentencing, which tempers retributive justice with other sentencing goals.

Overall Assessment

With a long and distinguished career in public service, Friedrich has had the opportunity to work on numerous issues that directly affect District Court judges, and her background on the sentencing commission shows that she supports reasonable reforms to sentencing laws aimed at reducing the overpopulation of prisons for drug-related offenses.  

Friedrich’s re-nomination to the Commission by the Obama administration also shows her bi-partisan appeal.  If confirmed – and little suggests that she would be a controversial appointment – she will likely use the same consistent, evidence-based approach to the law that has characterized her work at the Sentencing Commission.  


[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-courts-sentences-idUSBREA2C08J20140313

[4] Id.