Supreme Court to act on sentencing rules

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to settle whether long-standing federal rules for sentencing criminals violate the Constitution, a question that has thrown federal courthouses into disarray this summer.

The high court said it will hear two cases suggested by the Bush administration. The Justice Department had rushed the appeals just weeks after the court ruled major portions of a state sentencing system unconstitutional.

That system in the state of Washington, like the federal sentencing system, relied on judges to make many decisions that can affect the length of a defendant’s sentence. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that juries must decide any matter that can lengthen a sentence beyond the maximum set out in state sentencing guidelines, or the defendant must admit it.

Federal trial judges routinely make such findings as the quantity of drugs involved in a crime or whether a gun was used.

Trial judges and appeals courts have divided over whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Blakely v. Washington invalidates the federal sentencing system, with some judges concluding that they cannot continue sentencing criminal defendants under the old rules.

Cases will be heard in October
The Supreme Court is on its summer hiatus, but nonetheless issued a brief order to add both cases to its calendar. The court said it will hear the cases, both involving federal drug defendants, on the first day of the new court term in October.

The justices gave government lawyers and defense attorneys a tight schedule to file paperwork over the summer.

The high court said nothing Monday about the urgency of the sentencing issue, but the choice to hear the cases so soon is an indication that the court is well aware of the turmoil caused by its ruling.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said as much in a speech last month, in which she echoed her own sharp dissent in the Blakely case. As she and other dissenters predicted, the ruling upset what had been a settled, and presumably constitutional, system in use in each of more than 90 federal trial courts around the country.

The Bush administration is defending the federal sentencing system, usually known as the sentencing guidelines. The guidelines give judges a range of possible punishments for a given crime, and make it difficult for judges to go outside those boundaries.

The system was authorized by Congress and set up two decades ago as a way to reduce disparities among punishments handed out by different judges.

In asking the high court to get involved, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer said thousands of criminal sentences are at stake.

“The federal sentencing system has fallen into a state of deep uncertainty and disarray about the constitutional validity of the federal sentencing guidelines system,” Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote in asking the high court to move quickly.

Some sentences being imposed now are presumably either much too long or much too short, depending on what the Supreme Court eventually says.

The high court has already found the federal guideline system constitutional, but that was long before the justices began a reexamination of the role of judges and juries in determining facts.

A ruling four years ago, little noticed at the time, overturned state sentencing rules in new Jersey that allowed a judge to lengthen a criminal sentence based on facts never presented to a jury.

Weighing judges, juries
The court said then, and has repeated in other cases since, that the Constitution’s guarantee of a jury trial means that judges alone cannot do the work of a jury.

It has been unclear whether the federal sentencing rules would survive, but the issue did not come to a head until the court ruled in June that a wealthy Washington rancher received an unconstitutionally long sentence for kidnapping his estranged wife. Ralph Howard Blakely admitted sealing his wife’s mouth with duct tape and locking her in a box in the bed of his pickup truck.

The judge in that case found that Blakely had acted with “deliberate cruelty,” and tacked nearly three additional years to the prison term Blakely had expected to receive.

That is the sort of finding that federal judges often make, as well, although the cases the high court agreed to hear Monday involve no violence.

In one of the appeals, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago threw out a Wisconsin man’s sentence because a federal judge, acting alone, decided the amount of drugs that were involved and that the man had obstructed justice.

The second case involves a Massachusetts man convicted in Maine of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and set for sentencing four days after the Blakely ruling was issued. The judge in Ducan Fanfan’s case was prepared to impose a sentence of between 15 years and 16 years, based in part on facts that were not part of the jury trial.

The judge reconsidered because of the Supreme Court case, and Fanfan was sentenced instead to about six years in prison.

The case is on appeal to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, but the administration asked the high court to skip the appeals court step and simply review the case now.

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