Justices take up sentencing guidelines

Session: The Supreme Court opens by considering judges' power.

October 04, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Ducan Fanfan was facing a 16-year prison term after a federal jury in Maine convicted him of conspiring to distribute 500 grams of powder cocaine and U.S. prosecutors, at his sentencing hearing, presented evidence that Fanfan also dealt crack.

But Fanfan caught a break of timing -- and got 6 1/2 years -- when he was sentenced just four days after a sweeping Supreme Court ruling in June curtailed judges' power to increase jail time for criminals based on evidence not presented to a jury.

The judge in Fanfan's case said he would "leave it to higher courts to tell me [the decision] does not mean exactly what it says," and the Supreme Court begins its new term today by attempting to clarify just that.

In an effort to swiftly resolve whether the complex U.S. sentencing guidelines are constitutional in light of its 5-4 ruling in June in a Washington state kidnapping case, the justices picked opening day to hear appeals from the Justice Department in the case of Fanfan and another drug dealer from Wisconsin.

The court's decision on the sentencing question will be among its most closely watched in a year in which the justices will also weigh the constitutionality of juvenile executions, and conflicting state and federal laws concerning medical marijuana use -- and will face renewed scrutiny about their own futures.

For now, the docket lacks any cases with the potential sweep of some from last term, when the court delivered a strong check to the president's wartime powers in a pair of terrorism cases but also protected some measure of executive privilege in a case involving access to records from an energy policy committee led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

But the court's calendar is not full, and cases involving displays of the Ten Commandments on public property and government detention of material witnesses could be in the wings, court watchers say.

"I don't think this term is like last term, where the terrorism cases and the Cheney case were obviously very big cases," University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger said last week. "But there are some very interesting and important cases."

This term also opens against the backdrop of the presidential campaign -- a reminder of the court's role in deciding the 2000 election and of potential appointments to the bench regardless of who is elected now. The court's membership has not changed in a decade, but it is all but certain to be shuffled in the next four years.

Retirement speculation has focused on Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, 74, and John Paul Stevens, who at 84 is the court's oldest member. William H. Rehnquist, who turned 80 Friday and has served as chief justice for 18 years, is also viewed as likely to retire in the near future -- setting the stage for two nomination battles, one for the chief's post and another for a new associate justice.

The outcome of the presidential election will largely influence who decides to stay or leave, but another factor will be whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate, which must approve all court nominations, said David Garrow, an Emory University law professor and Supreme Court scholar.

"I believe pretty firmly there is no reason to expect a voluntary retirement from Stevens or O'Connor -- they both love the job way too much," said Garrow, who predicted that more likely departures would come from Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 71, who has had health problems, or David H. Souter, 65, who has made plain his distaste for Washington life.

As they begin an 11th term together, the nine justices over the next nine months will decide cases touching on a number of high-profile issues, including:

The consitutionality of imposing the death penalty on defendants who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crime. The court upheld the practice in 1989, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled last year that a national consensus against executing juveniles had emerged -- reversing the death sentence of convicted killer Christopher Simmons and forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the issue.

The right of local governments to take a person's home to clear a path for private development. The court agreed last week to hear a Connecticut case in which homeowner Susette Kelo has challenged an effort by the city of New London to take her home through eminent domain to enable private developers to build a riverfront hotel, health club and offices.

Whether federal drug crimes apply in states where voters or state lawmakers have approved the use of marijuana under a doctor's supervision. A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that prosecuting medical marijuana users is unconstitutional, but the Justice Department maintains that federal laws banning marijuana use should override state laws.

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