High Court Voids 'Mandatory' Sentencing; U.S. Judges Told to Consult, Not Obey Guidelines

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The Supreme Court yesterday voided mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, making them voluntary and saying U.S. judges could consult them before imposing penalties.

The court said juries, not judges, must determine any facts used to set the length of prison sentences.

More than 64,000 people are sentenced each year under the guidelines, and defense lawyers and others predicted yesterday a deluge of appeals from those who say they were wrongly sentenced.

The 124-page decision applied to the federal system a June high court ruling in a Washington state case that said juries - not judges - had to determine whether factors that can increase a defendant's prison term are met in a given case.

In a complex set of three opinions, the court criticized but did not scrap the 17-year-old federal sentencing guidelines, instead making them voluntary, potentially opening the way for an avalanche of appeals of federal sentences.

"Chaos will reign in federal courthouses," predicted Kirby Behre, a former federal prosecutor who practices law in Washington. He said judges must decide how to respond to the Supreme Court decision, and prosecutors and defense lawyers will argue over it.

Supporting a defendant's right under the Sixth Amendment to have a jury and not a judge decide whether sentencing increases are warranted were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"It has been settled throughout our history that the Constitution protects every criminal defendant against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged," Justice Stevens wrote. "It is equally clear that the Constitution gives a criminal defendant the right to demand that a jury find him guilty of all the elements of the crime with which he is charged."

Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer. However, Justice Ginsburg joined the four dissenters in voting to salvage the guidelines by making them nonmandatory - a point that legal scholars said yesterday could be taken to mean that judges have a free hand in sentencing.

Christopher Wray, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division, said the guidelines have ensured that "similar defendants who commit similar crimes receive similar sentences. Because the guidelines are now advisory, the risk increases that sentences across the country will become wildly inconsistent."

Justice Breyer, in a dissenting opinion, said he found "nothing in the Sixth Amendment that forbids a sentencing judge to determine the manner or way in which the offender carried out the crime of which he was convicted.

"Traditionally, federal law has looked to judges, not juries, to resolve disputes about sentencing facts," he said.

"Ours, of course, is not the last word. The ball now lies in Congress' court," he added. …