Saying strict new federal sentencing guidelines had taken much of the fun out of his job, U.S. District Court Judge J. Lawrence Irving announced Wednesday he is leaving the bench.
Irving, 55, who has drawn a succession of high-profile cases, including financier Richard T. Silberman's recently concluded money-laundering case, said he plans to notify President Bush today that he will resign effective Dec. 31.
Widely regarded as one of the keenest federal judges in California, Irving said he believes he is the first judge in the nation to quit because of the rules, which sharply reduce a judge's discretion in sentencing convicted criminals.
"To me the job just isn't as much fun as it used to be," Irving said.
A multimillionaire who was considered one of San Diego's finest trial lawyers before his appointment to the federal bench--and the promise of lifetime tenure--in 1982, Irving said his plans are indefinite. He said he might teach and he might mediate lawsuits--and most certainly will play a lot of golf.
His departure seems sure to leave the San Diego federal court--strained by drug cases, many stemming from arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border--even more beleaguered. The court is already short one full-time judge.
Like many federal judges, Irving has made no secret of his displeasure with the rigid sentencing guidelines, based upon the idea that prison is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. The rules took effect in November, 1987.
The guidelines use a point system based mainly on the severity of the crime to determine sentences. A person's background, role in the crime, past record or remorse cannot be used to reduce the sentence below the minimum guideline.
Before 1987, some judges gave light sentences, often because they believed circumstances called for leniency or because they simply believed prison failed to rehabilitate. By reducing a judge's discretion, the guidelines also aim to eliminate disparity in sentencing.
In a March, 1988, case, Irving declared the guidelines unconstitutional, joining three other San Diego federal judges who had issued similar rulings. The San Diego judges were among the first in the nation to challenge the standards.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the guidelines in January, 1989.
Despite that ruling, the arguments have continued. In a report issued in April, the Federal Courts Study Committee--a blue-ribbon panel charged with recommending changes in the federal courts--urged making the rules advisory rather than compulsory.
Irving, in sentencing Silberman to 46 months in prison, said Monday from the bench that the guidelines had "dehumanized the sentencing process" into a "numbers game."
Silberman, a wealthy financier and one-time aide to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., was sentenced under the guidelines. Under a plea bargain, he had admitted guilt in August to a single felony count--and had been convicted in June after a trial of one other felony count--in connection with a scheme to launder $300,000 in cash that an undercover FBI agent had portrayed as drug money.
Irving said from the bench that, because of the financier's "many contributions to the community," he might have considered sentencing Silberman to less than the 41 to 51 months prescribed by the guidelines. But Irving said the guidelines eliminated that option.
Irving, a Reagan appointee, joined the San Diego federal bench in July, 1982.
Before the new rules took effect, Irving said Wednesday, "it used to be that a judge could do some good in sentencing," by being lenient when leniency was called for. "Now I can't do that. It tugs at your heart.
"The purpose of the guidelines is admirable--to do away with disparity in sentencing," he said. "It just doesn't work out that way."