Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the more lenient penalties apply to the thousands of people who violated the law before President Obama signed it on Aug. 3, 2010, but who were not sentenced until afterward.
The decision came on a day the court also made it harder for public employee unions to extract special fees from nonmembers.
The court was clearing the deck for decisions next week on two of the most important cases of the term: the constitutionality of Obama’s health-care law and Arizona’s attempt to toughen laws against illegal immigrants.
The Fair Sentencing Act changed a system that essentially treated one gram of crack cocaine as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine. It reduced that ratio to about 1 to 18, raising the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory sentences.
Congress did not expressly say in the new law that it applied retroactively. And an 1871 statute seemed to indicate that such an affirmative statement was required.
But Breyer said that “six considerations, taken together, convince us that Congress intended” for the more lenient penalties to apply more quickly.
Among them were a belief that Congress could not have wanted a sentencing scheme it was overturning to continue in place even for a short time; no indication that it envisioned a delay in implementing the new sentences; and a finding that a failure to use the new sentences could make the disparities worse.
Breyer was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Justice Antonin Scalia said Breyer’s complicated test only pointed out that Congress did not expressly say the sentences should apply retroactively. “In the end, the mischief of the court’s opinion is not the result in this particular case, but rather the unpredictability it injects into the law for the future.”
He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The two cases from Illinois are Dorsey v. U.S. and Hill v. U.S.
Union activists angered
In the union case, Kennedy joined the conservative justices to make it harder for public-
employee unions to get nonmembers to pay special fees for political action.
The case involved a unit of the Service Employees International Union in California, where all employees of an “agency shop” are represented by the union. Non-members must pay an annual fee to cover the costs relative to collective bargaining but may receive a refund of fees used for lobbying and political activities with which they disagree.