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Case Basics
Docket No. 
John Mistretta
United States
United States v. Mistretta, No. 87-1904
(Argued the cause for the United States Sentencing Commission as amicus curiae urging affirmance)
(Argued the cause for the petitioner in No. 87-7028 and the respondent in No. 87-1904)
(Argued the cause for the United States in both cases)
Facts of the Case 

Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. This Commission was to attack the wide discrepancies in sentencing by federal court judges by creating sentencing guidelines for all federal offenses. It was to be part of the judicial branch, with members appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. John Mistretta (convicted of three counts of selling cocaine) claimed that the Act violated the delegation-of-powers principle by giving the Commission "excessive legislative powers." This case was decided together with United States v. Mistretta.


Did the Act violate the nondelegation doctrine of the Constitution?

Decision: 8 votes for United States, 1 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 18 U.S.C. 3551

The Court found the Act to be valid because although Congress cannot generally delegate its legislative power to another Branch, the nondelegation doctrine does not prevent Congress from obtaining assistance from coordinate Branches. The test of validity is that an "intelligible principle" must be established by the legislature where the agency of the delegated authority must adhere to specific directives that govern its authority. The delegation to the Commission was sufficiently detailed and specific to meet these requirements. The Commission was given substantial authority and discretion in setting the guidelines; however, Congress established a classification hierarchy for federal crimes that the Commission was to use as an outline for its work.

Cite this Page
MISTRETTA v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 29 August 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1988/1988_87_7028>.
MISTRETTA v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1988/1988_87_7028 (last visited August 29, 2015).
"MISTRETTA v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 29, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1988/1988_87_7028.