On September 4, a Jenner & Block team led by Associate Zachary C. Schauf prevailed in the DC Circuit on behalf of an inmate, Edward Ford, who challenged the US Parole Commission’s unlawful practice of delaying parole hearings for certain inmates convicted of offenses under both the US Code and DC Code. Expressly splitting with the Seventh Circuit, the DC Circuit ordered the commission to hold a new hearing to redress the unlawful delay. Thanks to this ruling, Mr. Ford now has a real chance of obtaining parole during his lifetime.
In 1980, Mr. Ford committed three murders in three months—one in Virginia (yielding a conviction in federal court), one in the District of Columbia (yielding a conviction in DC court), and one in Maryland (yielding a conviction in Maryland court). Because the District of Columbia does not operate its own prisons, DC Code offenders serve their time in federal custody and the US Parole Commission oversees their parole hearings. But DC Code sentences—and inmates’ right to seek parole from them—remain governed by DC law. Under DC law, Mr. Ford became eligible for parole from his DC Code sentence in 2000 and should have received a DC Code parole hearing at that time.
But for inmates like Mr. Ford, who are serving both DC Code and US Code sentences, the commission has promulgated a regulation that delays DC Code parole hearings until the inmates are deemed suitable for parole from their federal sentences. For Mr. Ford, that did not occur until 2005 and, as a result, Mr. Ford’s parole hearing occurred five years later than it should have.
That delay has consequences. The applicable DC Code parole law measures an inmate’s suitability for parole based on a numerical “grid score.” Every time an inmate has a parole hearing, he has the chance to lower his grid score by one—but only one—point by showing rehabilitation. So the earlier and more frequently these hearings are, the better an inmate’s chances are of parole. Delaying these hearings, by contrast, means an inmate’s score is permanently higher.
When the commission denied Mr. Ford’s most recent request for parole in 2012, Ford brought suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. The district court granted summary judgment to the government. Mr. Ford appealed and the DC Circuit appointed Jenner & Block as amicus curiae to present arguments in Mr. Ford’s favor. Mr. Schauf presented oral argument on April 26, 2018, before Chief Judge Garland and Judges Griffith and Srinivasan.
On September 4, 2018, the DC Circuit unanimously reversed in an opinion written by Judge Srinivasan. The court noted that, 25 years ago, the Seventh Circuit had approved the commission’s approach. But the court explained that it “must give effect to the terms of [the governing statute] as we understand them,” even if it required “reaching a different conclusion.” According to the court, the governing statutes “require the commission to hold an offender’s first DC parole hearing at his DC parole eligibility date.” And in “light of th[e] substantial benefits from holding DC parole hearings as soon as an offender is eligible for DC parole,” the court found it could not “write off the inconsistency between the commission’s regulation and [the statutes] as immaterial.”
The court reversed the grant of summary judgment in the commission’s favor and remanded with directions to enter summary judgment in Mr. Ford’s favor. The court ordered the commission to hold a new hearing for Mr. Ford, applying the proper standards.
Despite his grave crimes, Mr. Ford has worked tirelessly to rehabilitate himself, lowering his grid score at each hearing he has received. And while Mr. Ford is still facing a life sentence in Maryland, the DC Circuit’s decision has given Mr. Ford hope that he may obtain release from prison during his lifetime.
Partners Max Minzner and David W. DeBruin supervised the case, edited the briefs and served as moot court judges, along with Partner Jessica Ring Amunson, Associates Previn Warren, William K. Dreher and Benjamin M. Eidelson, and former associate Kendall Turner. Cheryl Olson provided paralegal assistance and Sheree Anyiam provided secretarial assistance.