U.S. rushes appeals in 2 drug cases

It urges justices to clarify federal sentencing rules

July 22, 2004|By Henry Weinstein | Henry Weinstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Asserting that a Supreme Court decision last month had created "a wave of instability in the federal sentencing system," the Justice Department asked the court yesterday to review as soon as possible two federal drug cases that call into question sentencing guidelines.

Justice Department lawyers asked the high court to hear the cases as early as September. The Supreme Court gave attorneys for the defendants in the two cases a week to file responses to the government's motions.

Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the sentence of a Montana methamphetamine dealer, which had been enhanced by a federal trial judge. The 9th Circuit said it, too, was acting in response to the Supreme Court decision in Blakely vs. Washington.

The high court held that Washington's system, which permits judges to make findings that increase a sentence beyond the specific counts that the jury convicted on, violates the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights.

In a related development yesterday, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution co-authored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, urging the Supreme Court to "resolve the current confusion" created by the Blakely decision handed down June 24.

The Senate resolution states that the ruling "has raised concern about the continued constitutionality of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines," which were adopted in 1984 with the goal of ensuring fairness and uniformity. The guidelines give judges the power to enhance sentences based on a variety of factors - such as whether a defendant used a weapon in the crime or failed to show remorse.

Judges make those decisions based on a legal standard called "preponderance of the evidence," the lowest standard of proof. In contrast, juries in criminal cases must make their decisions based on "beyond a reasonable doubt," the most stringent standard of proof.

Government attorneys said Blakely "has left the government, defendants and the courts without clear guidance" on how to conduct the 64,000 federal criminal sentencings each year.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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