The US Supreme Court has set the stage for a historic
transformation of the criminal justice system in a ruling that
requires federal judges to find a new way to mete out punishments to
The nation's highest court Wednesday struck down a portion of the
federal sentencing guidelines system designed to help judges hand
down similar punishments for similar crimes - a system that has been
in operation in federal courthouses for 17 years.
At the same time, however, a majority of justices upheld the
basic structure of the guidelines system. The move may help reduce
the level of confusion as federal courts attempt to apply the
Supreme Court's decision to the estimated 80,000 criminal defendants
sentenced each year within the federal court system.
Much of the federal sentencing system had slowed to a near halt
since last June when the high court issued a ruling raising serious
questions about the viability of the sentencing guidelines. Legal
analysts say the decision has lived up to expectations.
"This is one of the most important decisions involving practical
effects in the criminal system in United States history," says Marc
Miller, a sentencing expert at Emory Law School. "It ranks up there
In effect, the high court issued two decisions in one, with each
ruling reflecting the views of different factions of justices.
By a 5-to-4 vote, the justices said the application of the
guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. This
group of justices, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, said the
guidelines impermissibly allowed judges in some instances to become
a jury of one by handing down sentences that exceeded the prison
term authorized by a jury's verdict at trial.
A second group of justices, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled
5 to 4 that the guidelines system could be largely salvaged from the
constitutional problems identified by the other justices by severing
the portion of the federal sentencing statute that makes the
guidelines mandatory. By striking the mandatory requirement, the
guidelines would become merely advisory, thus permitting judges to
tailor particular sentences in light of other legally authorized
"We do not doubt that Congress ... intended to create a form of
mandatory guidelines system. But, given today's constitutional
holding, that is not a choice that remains open," Justice Breyer
He adds, "Ours, of course, is not the last word: The ball now
lies in Congress' court. The national legislature is equipped to
devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system, compatible
with the Constitution, that Congress judges best for the federal
system of justice."
Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University,
says the splintered nature of the decision may only sow more
confusion. "The need to provide clarity for the lower courts took a
back seat to the justices' strong beliefs about their own view of
the case," Professor Berman says.
One practical effect of the ruling is that prosecutors will
probably be forced to return more detailed indictments and to prove,
at trial, facts they believe may be relevant at sentencing. …