Court Report: States Lose a Few in This Term's U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

Article excerpt

Lawmakers in many states may soon need to take a close look at how criminals are sentenced in their state courts, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling that has upset the traditional rules for crime and punishment.

Until this year, the general rule has been that juries decide whether a defendant is guilty of crime, and, if so, the judge imposes a punishment. But the Supreme Court insists that the Constitution requires that juries, not judges acting alone, must decide all the facts that justify a long prison term.

"The founders of the American Republic were not prepared to leave it to the state" to decide who is guilty and what punishment is deserved, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the first of a series of rulings that strengthened the right to jury trials. "Judges, it is sometimes necessary to remind ourselves, are part of the state," he added.

Scalia has been the leader of an unusual five-member liberal-conservative coalition that has struck down stiff sentences imposed by judges. Four years ago, in the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey, the high court threw out part of a 12-year prison term that a judge had imposed on a middle-aged white man who, after drinking heavily, shot a bullet at the home of an African American neighbor.

The defendant, Charles Apprendi, pled guilty to an assault, which carried a maximum term of 10 years in prison. However, he was given extra time behind bars because the judge decided his offense amounted to a hate crime.

In reversing Apprendi's sentences, the justices announced a strict, new rule: "Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

Until this year, the Apprendi decision was seen as significant, but limited, since the new rule was triggered only when the sentence went beyond "the statutory maximum."

But this limitation seemingly evaporated in June when the high court struck down the sentence given to a Washington state kidnapper. Ralph Blakely had pied guilty to abducting his estranged wife and their son, a felony that carried a maximum of 10 years in prison. The judge had sent him to prison for seven-and-a-half years. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court found this punishment unconstitutional because his sentence exceeded the guidelines that had been set in the state's Sentencing Reform Act.

Washington's Legislature, along with at least 10 other states and the federal government, tried to ensure that similar crimes would be punished in the same way, regardless of who was the judge. Under Washington's guidelines, second-degree kidnapping with a weapon called for 49 to $3 months in prison, and that's the sentence Blakely expected when he pled guilty.

However, the judge heard testimony that the defendant had accosted his wife with a knife, wrapped her in duct tape and put her in a wooden coffin in the back of his pickup. This extreme cruelty called for a more severe punishment, the judge said, and he imposed a 90-month prison term.

In Blakely v. Washington, Justice Scalia said this extra sentence was unconstitutional. "Our precedents make clear that the 'statutory maximum' ... is the maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant," he said. "When a judge inflicts punishment that the jury's verdict alone does not allow ... the judge exceeds his proper authority," said Scalia.

His opinion was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.


The dissenters called the ruling a disaster in the making. "What I have feared most has now come to pass: Over 20 years of sentencing reform are all but lost, and tens of thousands of criminal judgments are in jeopardy," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. …