What happens if a judge disregards the mandatory minimum sentence and sentences the convicted to time served or some other lesser amount of time? Would this judgement be binding? What would happen to challange it, and would the judge face prosecution and if so -- by who?

Just to be clear, I'm not concerned about a judge that would cooperate or did so by accident. I'm concerned with remedies available to the state if a judge refuses to cooperate. Let's assume a judge refuses to impose a sentence (fails to apply) and isn't stupid (No self incrimination or reason to believe there was a bribe, coruption, or familial connection).

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    What you mean "cooperate"? Judges do not cooperate, they are independent.
    – Greendrake
    Dec 27, 2021 at 23:23
  • For the US, search on judge plus "censure".
    – mkennedy
    Dec 27, 2021 at 23:45
  • @Greendrake From your answer, "where remitted to the original court, it now may impose the minimum sentence." You say "may", as in "may or may not". This implies cooperation is not neccessary. Judges are not really independent. They can not the shoot the balliff in any country, as that would be against the law. This question is to determine if they can disregard a law that prescribes equally a minimal sentence. Dec 27, 2021 at 23:53
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    Where decision is remitted back to the original judge, they are essentially asked to have another look (as opposed to to come to a certain conclusion). In that sense, they do "cooperate" with the higher court — they look again. And may decide the same again. Legally, that is within their powers (although it will probably cause public woes and the judge may decide to resign).
    – Greendrake
    Dec 28, 2021 at 0:00
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    Well, that's a lot of power the judges in New Zeland have. ;) They may not even follow the law, and they do not have to cooperate" with the higher courts request. It'll be interesting to see what the case is in the USA. Dec 28, 2021 at 0:06

4 Answers 4


Minimum sentencing laws do not prescribe any punishment for a judge that simply refuses to obey them. See 18 U.S. Code § 3553 as an example that explains how sentencing must be enforced, yet no mention of punishments for violating these laws. It also makes mention of how minimum sentencing can be avoided by a judge lawfully as well.

Judges do not risk jail time or fines for breaking these laws, as they have judicial discretion, which is literally a power defined by what it means to be a judge, to hand out whatever sentence they think is appropriate. (Note: there may be exceptions, but I couldn't find any. If any such examples exist, they are likely rare)

If a judge refuses to hand out an appropriate sentence by these laws, there are options available. The two main choices are by review, and by appeal. The review board has a few options. They can accept the lower sentence, they can reject the sentence to have the judge resentence, or they can assign the sentencing to a different judge. By way of appeal, the prosecutors can choose to appeal to a higher court. Eventually, either the sentence will become fixed at the reduced level, or it will be corrected by someone else in the system, if not the judge, then either an associate or superior.

Either way, the odds are stacked against a rebel judge. However, at least one documented example of this exists, the story of Judge John Coughenour (linked below). He sentenced the same person three times for the same crime, and while he eventually did get a "victory," the story goes to demonstrate that (a) judges can rebel and get some effect, and (b) even as hard as he fought, he wasn't punished, but he also didn't get nearly the effect he was hoping for, despite a promise from the government to reduce the criminal's sentence in exchange for cooperation.

While judges can be censured, reprimanded, removed from office, voted out (at least, at lower levels), and impeached, most of these punishments are reserved for situations of corruption, bribery, etc, rather than simply executing their judiciary discretion, which is one of the core powers granted to them by the judicial branch.

Further Reading:

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    IANAL, but doesn't Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203 (1984) place some restrictions on what a prosecutor can do to appeal for a higher sentence, even when the sentence was erroneous? Dec 28, 2021 at 16:01
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    @RBarryYoung Prosecutors operate with mostly unlimited prosecutorial discretion as well, and these processes are typically far less transparent than that for judges. That said, the entire judicial system is meant to be set up in a way that no one portion can completely railroad another unfairly. As such, it is expected that there would be checks against "unlimited" sentence upgrades, of which 467 US 203 is a pretty clear example of. Dec 28, 2021 at 16:36
  • Regarding the lack of punishments: I find this entirely unsurprising, because I would expect judges to have absolute (judicial) immunity when carrying out official judicial functions.
    – Kevin
    Dec 29, 2021 at 8:15
  • What would happen if a judge were to make an explicit statement that the facts of the case suggest a lack of criminal intent sufficient to justify the statutory minimum punishment, and imposition of such punishment given the lack of criminal intent would violate the Eighth Amendment? Few statutes other than murder explicitly consider criminal intent, but a punishment that would be if anything too lenient for someone who clearly demonstrates a craven level of criminal intent could be grossly excessive for someone who clearly does not.
    – supercat
    Dec 29, 2021 at 22:39
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    @supercat Yes, a judge can argue that a mandatory minimum sentencing can be a constitutional violation. United States v. Haymond is an example where a mandatory minimum sentencing was deemed unconstitutional. This usually ends up going to a higher court (likely a Supreme Court), but it has been successfully done, and will likely happen again in the future. Dec 30, 2021 at 0:06

The prosecutor may appeal on the question of law whether the judge erred in not imposing the minimum sentence.

The appeal court may agree and order the original court (not directly the judge) to reconsider. Or it may even directly correct the sentence:

(1) A first appeal court must determine a first appeal under this subpart by—

(c) varying or substituting the sentence or remitting the sentence to the sentencing court with directions, if the decision relates to sentence and the court thinks the decision is erroneous

Where remitted to the original court, it now may impose the minimum sentence. Or make another error of law.

Judges enjoy a great deal of immunity. Unless there is evidence that the judge acted in bad faith (e.g. received a bribe), nothing will happen to them apart from perhaps some ego irritation.

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    Repsectfully, I don't think this answers the spirit of the question. This answers the original court/judge may impose the minimum sentence after correction. I'm seeking to know what would happen if the judge has absolutley no intention of it. I can clairify the question to be more explicit, give me a minute. ;) Dec 27, 2021 at 22:53
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    When you say "Judges enjoy a great deal of immunity" that mean that ultimately no one can question their failure to apply the minimum setencing rules? Dec 27, 2021 at 22:59
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    @EvanCarroll You do question their failure by appealing to a higher court and asking it to overrule their wrong decision. You need to further clarify your question as judges do not "cooperate".
    – Greendrake
    Dec 27, 2021 at 23:24
  • nothing will happen to them — maybe it affects their chances of career progression?
    – gerrit
    Dec 28, 2021 at 10:21
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    It's not obviously an error of law. A judge could certainly find that in the case before him the law unconstitutional by the Eight Amendment (on the "excessive" not the "unusual"). This might not even mean the law is unconstitutional most of the time.
    – Joshua
    Dec 28, 2021 at 17:08

The Crown Prosecution Service page here:

Unduly Lenient Sentences


Meaning of 'Unduly Lenient'

This includes cases where judges err in law as to their powers of sentencing (section 36(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988) or fail to impose a sentence required by the following provisions:

and sets out the procedures and time limits for appeal by the prosecution.

As for the intention of the original judge, I don't think they would have the power to obstruct, so their intention is irrelevant. It is not the original judge who reviews the sentence, but the Court of Appeal.

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    And a judge who persistently breaches sentencing guidelines would swiftly be removed from their position
    – Richard
    Dec 28, 2021 at 19:27

In especially egregious cases, the judges may be forced to resign. E.g., two West Virginia judges resigned as part of their agreement with the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission. In this case, the two judges were giving overly lenient sentences (or rather, outright dismissing cases) in return for charitable donations as part of a holiday ticket program.

When the donation scheme started, it was only used for speeding and similar offenses. However, the program was later used for criminal cases like DUIs (including 2nd offenses).

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    Question specifies that bribery is outside the scope here. Dec 29, 2021 at 22:27
  • @R..GitHubSTOPHELPINGICE: Though similar, this wasn't bribery. It was part of a documented program.
    – Brian
    Dec 30, 2021 at 13:57

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