updated 6/24/2004 8:58:53 PM ET 2004-06-25T00:58:53

A divided Supreme Court underscored Thursday that the constitutional right to a jury trial forbids a judge from acting alone to tack additional time onto a convict’s sentence.

By a 5-4 vote, the court overturned the sentence of a Washington state man sentenced to more than seven years in prison for kidnapping his estranged wife in 1998. A judge had said the four-year term called for in state sentencing guidelines was too lenient.

The judge said Ralph Howard Blakely acted with “deliberate cruelty” that merited a longer term than Blakely or prosecutors had anticipated.

The right to a jury trial “is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for an odd right-left lineup of justices.

Blakely “was sentenced to prison for more than three years beyond what the law allowed for the crime to which he confessed, on the basis of a disputed finding,” by the trial judge, Scalia wrote.

The Constitution’s “framers would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of his liberty, the state should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting its accusation” to a jury, Scalia wrote.

Dissenters predict chaos
Scalia said the case was not about the constitutionality of state sentencing systems that give judges a limited range of sentences for a given crime, but dissenters in Thursday’s case predicted it will wreak havoc across the states and the federal government.

Guidelines used by many states and the federal court system were meant to produce more uniform sentences. Some judges chafe under guidelines they say can be too rigid and inflexible.

The case was further fallout from the high court’s ruling in 2000 that juries, not judges, must decide facts of a case that lengthen a prison term. That ruling roiled the criminal sentencing system nationwide and led to a tide of appeals from current and former inmates who claimed they were denied their constitutional right to a full trial by jury.

It also led to a shakeup in application of the death penalty when the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that a judge alone could not decide whether particular “aggravating factors” made a convicted killer eligible for the death penalty. The ruling overturned the sentencing laws of five states.

No retroactivity on death rulings
Acting in a separate case Thursday, the high court declined to make that 2002 death penalty ruling retroactive. Inmates who had completed their regular appeals under systems in which a judge had the final say cannot reopen their cases, the Supreme Court said.

In the Blakely ruling, the court said that the case is of a piece with both the original 2000 case and the 2002 death penalty follow-up.

Although judges had slightly different options in all three cases, “it remains the case that the jury’s verdict alone does not authorize the sentence,” Scalia wrote.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with Scalia. That majority includes the court’s two most liberal members — Stevens and Ginsburg — and its two most conservative — Scalia and Thomas.

On the other side were conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, moderate conservative Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy, and relative liberal Stephen Breyer.

O'Connor's fiery dissent
O’Connor wrote the most vociferous of three dissents. Far from limiting the power of judges, the ruling will strengthen their hand, O’Connor predicted.

States and the federal government “will either trim or eliminate altogether their sentencing guidelines schemes, and with them 20 years of sentencing reform,” O’Connor wrote.

“It is thus of little moment that the majority does not expressly declare guidelines schemes unconstitutional,” she said. “The effect of today’s decision will be greater judicial discretion and less uniformity in sentencing.”

The ruling comes amid renewed scrutiny of sentencing guidelines and judicial power.

Recent attention has focused on federal judges who toss out the recommended guidelines and impose a lighter term. That situation does not arise often, but Attorney General John Ashcroft has said it should be even rarer.

The Justice Department “has a solemn obligation to ensure that laws concerning criminal sentencing are faithfully, fairly and consistently enforced,” Ashcroft wrote last year.

Congress passed a law sought by Ashcroft’s Justice Department this year making it more difficult for judges to dip below the recommended guidelines. Federal judges have asked Congress to repeal the law.

The case is Blakely v. Washington, 02-1632.

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