State and federal officials are scrambling to examine their
options in the wake of a major ruling by the US Supreme Court that
threatens to undermine sentencing-guideline systems in several
states and all federal courts.
At the same time, defense attorneys and defendants are gearing up
for what could become a flood of appeals seeking reduced sentences
under the new precedent.
In a case called Blakely v. Washington, the Supreme Court last
week invalidated a 7-1/2-year sentence in a Washington State
kidnapping case because the majority justices said the punishment
violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
While the decision was good news for defendant Ralph Howard Blakely
Jr., it may represent a constitutional death knell for sentencing-
guideline programs like Washington State's that allow a judge to use
facts not considered by a jury at trial to boost a defendant's
Instead of a 53-month sentence, Mr. Blakely received a 90-month
sentence after the judge in his case determined - independent of any
jury - that Blakely had acted with "deliberate cruelty."
"The court ignores the havoc it is about to wreak on trial courts
across the country," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a dissent
to the 5-to-4 decision. "Over 20 years of sentencing reform are all
but lost, and tens of thousands of criminal judgments are in
Indeed, by declaring that Blakely's sentence violates the US
Constitution, the high court has set off a flurry of activity in
other states and within the federal government to determine if their
own systems might also be unconstitutional. "There will be
tremendous dislocation in any number of state systems and the
federal system," says Kevin Reitz, a professor at the University of
Colorado School of Law in Boulder and an expert on state sentencing-
Professor Reitz says roughly half of the 15 states with guideline
systems will be affected by the Blakely decision. Oregon and North
Carolina may be particularly vulnerable to challenges, he says. But
most in jeopardy is the federal system with its large number of
judicially enhanced sentences, he says.
"Up to 90 percent of federal sentences will run afoul of Blakely,
as opposed to 10 percent of sentences in state systems," he says.
In her dissent, Justice O'Connor noted that within the past four
years more than 270,000 defendants have been sentenced under the
federal guidelines. …