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- OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES Jr. (1841-1935)

Supreme Court Justice

When U.S. District Court Judge Paul Cassell sentenced Utah record producer and pot dealer Weldon Angelos to 55 years in prison, he was following the law.

When he joined with a who's who of the American bar to argue that that very sentence was, in Cassell's words, "unjust, cruel and even irrational," he was seeking justice.

The fact that justice and the law do not match is not Cassell's fault. It is the fault of Congress.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case brought by Angelos that his sentence, though mandated by law, is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.

If an effective life sentence for such a common crime, invoked merely because Angelos was found to be carrying a gun when he was caught selling marijuana to undercover police officers, is not cruel and unusual, it's hard to imagine what would be.

As the brief filed by 145 one-time prosecutors, including four former U.S. attorneys general, pointed out, Angelos' sentence is double what would be handed down to someone who was convicted of hijacking an airliner or being the kingpin behind a death-dealing drug cartel.

Angelos was operating in a world where everyone carries weapons because, as the song goes, you always carry cash. That the law that set the sentence or the prosecutors who invoked it should be offended at the presence of a weapon in that environment is childish.

Cassell could have refused to impose the sentence and dared prosecutors to get him overturned on appeal. The fact that he declined to do so shows Cassell, who would never be mistaken for a bleeding-heart liberal in any circumstance, cannot be dismissed as an "activist judge."

Because neither the U.S. Court of Appeals nor the Supreme Court would rescue Cassell's conscience from his sense of duty, it is now up to Congress to change the law, and up to President Bush to commute the sentence.

Prospects for such action are slim, given that few politicians advance their careers by putting justice ahead of retribution.

But mandatory minimum sentences are deservedly losing popularity all along the political spectrum. The Angelos case is evidence that they fail the definition of justice, and should end.

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