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O’Connor blasts court’s sentencing ruling

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said a recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision casts doubt on federal sentencing guidelines and could throw tens of thousands of cases into turmoil.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told dozens of top judges and prosecutors Thursday that she is “disgusted” by a recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on federal sentencing guidelines and could undermine tens of thousands of cases.

“It looks like a No. 10 earthquake to me,” O’Connor told the annual conference of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ruling in June on Washington state’s sentencing guidelines, the nation’s high court said juries, not judges, must consider any factor that could lengthen a defendant’s sentence beyond the maximum the guidelines set out.

At present, federal guidelines let judges increase sentences based on facts that were not part of the jury trial — such as the quantity of drugs involved or the amount of money investors were defrauded.

O’Connor, who briefly discussed the ruling during a 45-minute speech, said she was “disgusted in how we dealt with it.”

Judges and federal prosecutors at the Monterey conference agreed the opinion has thrown the legal system into chaos. Part of the problem is that it is unclear whether it applies federally as well — the 9th Circuit and one other federal appeals court have ruled it does, while another circuit has ruled it does not.

O’Connor spoke a day after the Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to rule quickly on the constitutionality of the two-decade-old system of federal sentencing rules that the court placed in legal limbo. Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement told the justices in the government’s appeal that about 64,000 federal defendants are sentenced each year under the guidelines.

In their ruling, a majority of the justices said Washington state’s sentencing scheme violated defendants’ right to jury trials.

Dissenting justices including O’Connor warned that the ruling would undermine — if not destroy — federal guidelines, which were meant to reduce disparities among punishments handed out by different judges.