Academics naturally believe that even obscure cases in their field are underappreciated; each minor tax or bankruptcy case quietly frames profound issues of justice. But, doubtful readers, rest assured that Terry v. United States – which the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday in the final argument of its 2020-21 term – packs so many swirling issues of great importance into an absurdly little case, it can hardly be believed. The national debate on historical racism in our criminal punishment system? Yes. Related questions of how we address drug use with our criminal law rather than as a public health issue? Undoubtedly. Redemption after committing a crime? Of course. The ramifications of a contested presidential election? Sure. The consequences of hyper-technical statutory distinctions on the fate of thousands? Goes without saying. A guest appearance by a Kardashian? Why not.
In 2008, Tarahrick Terry, then in his early 20s, was arrested in Florida for carrying just under 4 grams of crack cocaine, about the weight of four paper clips. He was charged under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), which outlaws possessing with intent to distribute crack cocaine. He was sentenced, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C), to just over 15 1/2 years in prison.
His sentence was a result of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created a 100:1 disparity in the punishment of crack cocaine compared to powdered cocaine. Under the law, a person arrested for crack cocaine was subject to the same prison sentence as a person arrested for 100 times that