[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 Monday in Alleyne v. United States [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence is an "element" that must be submitted to the jury, overruling its 2002 decision in Harris v. United States [opinion]. Harris was a 5-4 splintered opinion that allowed a judge to be the fact-finder when increasing mandatory minimum sentences, as opposed to requiring the question to go to the jury. Monday's decision was also splintered with Justice Clarence Thomas delivering the opinion of the court:
Here, the sentencing range supported by the jury's verdict was five years' imprisonment to life. The District Court imposed the 7-year mandatory minimum sentence based on its finding by a preponderance of evidence that the firearm was "brandished." Because the finding of brandishing increased the penalty to which the defendant was subjected, it was an element, which had to be found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge, rather than the jury, found brandishing, thus violating petitioner’s Sixth Amendment rights.Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a separate concurring opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Justice Stephen Breyer also filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate dissent.
Since Harris was decided, the court has gained three new members, and two in the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, have left the court. At oral arguments [JURIST report] in January, counsel for the defendant argued, "Any fact that entitles a prosecution by law to a sentence more severe than a judge could otherwise impose must be found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt." Counsel for the US urged the court to adhere to its ruling in Harris, "because those decisions properly respected the fact that a mandatory minimum divests the defendant of the right to judicial leniency."