Part II of the dissenting opinion criticizes this Court as a whole for the message the dissenting judge believes we have sent to district courts about how we review sentences for reasonableness. The dissent’s criticism is not about the legal standards that we have announced or the holdings of our decisions. We made clear in our en banc decision in Irey that the principles we announced in that decision applied equally to sentences above and below the guidelines range.
The dissent acknowledges that our decisions, particularly Irey, have correctly stated the law. So, we have gotten the law right.
The dissent’s criticism of this Court is that even though we have gotten the law right, it believes that the results of our substantive reasonableness decisions have sent a message to district courts that we will not vacate unreasonably long sentences, only unreasonable short ones. We are not told whether the accusation is that the Court has done this deliberately or just negligently. In any event, if we have been sending a message that contrary to the neutral principles we have announced we will favor upward variances more than downward ones, either we are not good at sending messages or the district courts of this circuit are not good at receiving them. The irrefutable fact is that district courts in our circuit impose far more downward variance sentences than upward variance ones. And the disparity in the rate at which downward and upward variance sentences are being imposed is increasingly favoring downward variances.
We have never vacated a sentence because it was too high, imposing a sentencing ceiling on remand. By contrast, on numerous occasions, we have vacated sentences because they were too low and imposed a sentencing floor. This forces me to believe that we are grading harshness and lenience on different scales. By failing to adhere to Irey and Pugh in this upward variance case, the Majority opinion reinforces this unstated double standard. It is true that we say all sentences are meaningfully reviewed for reasonableness, but in practice, it seems that only lenient sentences are subject to vacatur on purely substantive grounds. The message that we are sending to the district courts by this precedent is that they enjoy virtually unfettered sentencing discretion, so long as they sentence harshly. In other words, while we say otherwise, we are in reality reading a “severity principle” into sentencing that should not be there.”