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Supreme Court to Consider Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In Ashcroft v. Raich, 03-1454, the court will determine whether the federal government has the power to outlaw the personal cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, even when the marijuana stays in a user's home and never crosses state lines.

Angel McClary Raich is a brain tumor patient in California whose doctor advised her to smoke marijuana for pain relief. This is permissible under a 1996 California law, but federal agents have arrested medical marijuana users. So Raich joined a lawsuit in October 2002, asking a court to bar Attorney General John D. Ashcroft from enforcing federal drug laws against her.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, sided with Raich last year, ruling that the federal government cannot punish drug use that does not affect interstate commerce.

The Bush administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that an exemption for personal use or free distribution would discourage the consumption of lawful pain medicines and thwart Congress's intent to regulate the drug market comprehensively.

In addition, the court will decide in two consolidated cases whether some states may ban the direct shipment of wine from other states.

The cases, Granholm v. Heald, No. 03-1116, and Swedenburg v. Kelly, No. 03-1274, pit winemakers eager to sell on the Internet against state governments that say they will see a surge in underage drinking and a loss in tax revenue if wine no longer goes through licensed, in-state wholesalers.

Proponents of direct shipment say that states such as Michigan and New York are using such arguments to protect local wineries, and that their laws violate the Constitution's implicit prohibition against state trade barriers.

But the states say their authority comes from the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933. It bars the importation of alcohol into any state "in violation of the laws thereof."

Neither the wine cases nor the medical marijuana case has been scheduled for argument yet.

The case to be argued tomorrow has its roots in a sentencing reform movement that emerged after a 1972 report by federal Judge Marvin E. Frankel decried the "almost wholly unchecked and sweeping" power of judges to set sentences.

In 1984, Congress established the United States Sentencing Commission as an independent agency within the judicial branch. The commission's first set of guidelines took effect in 1987 and survived a Supreme Court test unrelated to the Sixth Amendment in 1989. The judges and other experts who make up the seven-member panel amend the guidelines each year, after Congress has had 180 days to veto any proposed changes.

Under the guidelines, judges are given a variety of factors to consider in deciding how harshly to punish within the range of penalties established by law.

In a typical case, such as one before the court now, U.S. v. Booker, No. 04-104, an accused drug trafficker either pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury of selling cocaine, and then a government probation officer presents the judge with findings as to the exact amount of drugs involved.

A jury found that Freddie Booker had trafficked more than 50 grams of cocaine. The judge found that the actual amount was 658.5 grams, that Booker had perjured himself at trial and that he had 23 prior convictions. The result under the guidelines: a sentence of 30 years, far longer than Booker would have gotten for trafficking 50 grams.

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