Supreme Court hears sentencing guidelines arguments

The US Supreme Court heard two hours of arguments Monday afternoon on whether federal sentencing guidelines that allow judges to impose harsher penalties on criminals without jury involvement should be upheld as constitutional. Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement argued that criminal defendants' constitutional rights were not breached because judges are constrained by a sentencing range set by Congress. In June, the Court stunned the legal community when it ruled in Blakely v. Washington [PDF] that a similar sentencing guideline in Washington state gave judges too much leeway in sentencing. Since Blakely case, judges have either delayed sentencing or gave lighter penalties because of the confusion. The two cases before the court are

  • United States v. Booker [PDF], a Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals case from Chicago in which the panel threw out Freddie Booker's sentence because a Wisconsin federal judge, acting alone, decided how much drugs were involved and that the man had obstructed justice; and
  • United States v. Fanfan, a Massachusetts case where Ducan Fanfan received a lighter prison sentence for a conviction in Maine of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, because of the court's ruling in the Washington state case.
The specific constitutional question for the Supreme Court Monday was whether a judge undermines a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by making critical decisions that add to sentences. Review the 2003 Federal Sentencing Guideline Manuel here. Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute provides a preview of the joined cases here. AP has more.

UPDATE: Late flash reports from the Court by Tom Goldstein of Supreme Court litigation firm Goldstein & Howe in DC say that on the basis of this afternoon's arguments "the FSG are going to be subject to Blakely to the extent a fact is necessary and sufficient to increase the sentencing range." SCOTUSblog has more. Much more information on the case - including briefs - is available on the Blakely Blog, which is also scheduled to feature a report from another courtroom observer.

 

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