By
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/12/2005 7:26:44 PM ET 2005-01-13T00:26:44

A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that federal judges no longer have to abide by controversial 18-year-old mandatory sentencing guidelines, saying that the consideration of factors not presented to jurors violates a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The ruling was a blow for the Justice Department, which had defended the constitutionality of the federal sentencing guidelines that now apply to about 64,000 criminal defendants each year. Thousands of cases nationwide have been on hold pending Wednesday's ruling, in which the court was split 5-4 on two different aspects of the case.

The high court ruled that its decision in June, which struck down a similar sentencing system used in Washington state for violating a defendant's constitutional rights, also applies to the federal guidelines.

Guidelines now advisory, not mandatory
Justice Stephen Breyer said in the court's opinion on one aspect of the ruling that the guidelines are no longer mandatory, making them only advisory for the sentencing judge.

If the judge chooses to use the sentencing guidelines to impose a longer sentence, an appeals court could overturn the sentence if it determines the application was unreasonable.

In two drug cases before the Supreme Court a judge imposed greater sentences under the guidelines, based on the judge's determination of a fact that was not found by the jury or admitted by the defendant.

The guidelines, long criticized by criminal justice reform advocates for imposing overly harsh sentences on a mandatory basis, set rules for federal judges in calculating what punishment to give a defendant and attempt to reduce wide disparities in sentences for the same crime. They tell judges which factors can lead to a lighter sentence and which ones can result in a longer sentence.

Breyer said Congress could act next.

"Ours, of course, is not the last word: The ball now lies in Congress' court. The national legislature is equipped to devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system compatible with the Constitution that Congress judges best for the federal system of justice," he wrote.

The Justice Department had appealed to the Supreme Court and defended the federal guidelines, arguing the federal system had been thrown into disarray by the ruling in June.

Justice Department ‘disappointed’
"We're disappointed in the ruling and we are currently reviewing it. We will have more to say later," said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo.

Road map to the Supreme CourtThe cases before the court involved two cases involving men convicted on drug charges in Wisconsin and Maine.

In siding with the two men, the court opened the door to thousands of claims by other defendants. But Justice John Paul Stevens said that not all of them will get new sentencing hearings. Judges must sort through the claims to determine which defendants have current appeals on the subject, he said.

The divided ruling took longer than expected. Justices had put the issue on a fast track, scheduling special arguments on the first day of their nine-month term in October. Most court watchers expected a ruling before the holidays.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors had been anxiously awaiting the ruling.

"The whole federal criminal law system is operating in a state of suspended animation," said Jeffrey Fisher, a Seattle attorney who argued last year's sentencing case. People have been waiting "for the shoe to drop so we can start grappling with the hard issues in the aftermath."

The cases are United States v. Booker, 04-104, and United States v. Fanfan, 04-105.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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