Supreme Court looks at federal sentencing

`Blakely' ruling limits judges' power to boost jail time in jury trials

October 05, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court opened its new term yesterday by wrestling with a legal mess left over from its last, when a decision limiting judges' power to boost jail time for criminals threw into doubt the constitutionality of the federal government's two-decade-old sentencing system.

A government lawyer told the court that U.S. sentencing guidelines are sound and should stand. But that did not appear to ease the concerns of the majority, which ruled in June that a defendant's right to a jury trial is compromised when judges - not juries - determine facts that can boost jail time.

"The whole reason for jury trials is we don't trust judges," said Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the 5-4 decision invalidating a Washington state sentencing system that was similar to the U.S. guidelines.

"If you get a mercenary judge, then good for you - that's lagniappe, as we say in Louisiana," Scalia said, invoking the regional expression for an unexpected gift. "But if you get a hanging judge," Scalia said, a defendant in an identical situation can face far harsher punishment.

At issue is whether the complex system for sentencing federal defendants can stand, or what changes it should face.

The system, created in the 1980s to make sentencings more fair, allows judges to make some determinations that can affect jail time, such as the amount of money lost in a fraud case or whether a gun was used in a crime. It has been in limbo, though, since the court's ruling in Blakely v. Washington.

In that case, the court said Washington state's sentencing system had violated defendant Ralph Blakely Jr.'s right to a trial by jury. Blakely, who was convicted of kidnapping his estranged wife, had faced a maximum sentence of 53 months for the crime, but a judge added 37 months after finding that Blakely had acted with "deliberate cruelty."

Acting Solicitor General Paul D. Clement argued yesterday that the U.S. guidelines are different from the Washington state system. But the Justice Department argued last year in Blakely that the two schemes were largely the same.

In an effort to swiftly resolve the implications for the federal sentencing guidelines, the justices over the summer picked opening day to hear appeals from the Justice Department in two drug cases - one from Wisconsin and one from Maine - where convicted cocaine dealers got big breaks in the aftermath of the Blakely decision.

The court is expected to rule in the drug cases by the end of the year. But the last word on the issue is likely to come from Congress, where lawmakers already have been reviewing possible changes to the sentencing scheme.

On another high-profile issue, the court yesterday refused to hear an appeal in former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's long legal battle over a Ten Commandments display on public property. Other cases on the same question, however, still could reach the court this year.

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