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Sentencing Standards No Longer Mandatory

Federal Judges May Deviate, Court Rules

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A01

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal judges are no longer bound by mandatory sentencing guidelines but need only consult them when they punish federal criminals.

Under the ruling, federal judges will be free to decide for themselves whether defendants deserve sentences longer or shorter than the ranges prescribed by the guidelines, but their decisions will be subject to reversal if appeals courts find them unreasonable.

Mary Beth Buchanan, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, and Assistant Attorney General Christopher A. Wray discuss the decision. (Lawrence Jackson -- AP)

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Transcript: Dean of the Columbia School of Law at The Catholic University of America is taking your questions on today's Supreme Court rulings about federal sentencing guidelines and changes in illegal immigrant imprisonment.
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United States v. Booker (Federal Sentencing) (Jan. 12, 2005)

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The guidelines were established in the 1980s as part of a bipartisan effort to ensure that the same crime would receive about the same punishment nationwide. But since then, they have become the source of intense controversy in the federal courts, subject to criticism across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives and prosecutors have said that some judges have tried to coddle criminals by eluding the guidelines. Defense lawyers and some judges have said they have resulted in excessive sentences for some defendants.

The divided outcome emerged from unusual twin majority opinions in United States v. Booker, No. 04-104, and United States v. Fanfan, No. 04-105. One group of five justices said the current administration of the guidelines violates defendants' right to a jury trial because judges impose sentences under them based on facts that a jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt.

Another group of five justices explained why the guidelines must nevertheless continue to shape sentencing decisions even if judges are no longer legally bound to follow them.

The modified system, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote on behalf of the five justices who supported it, will help "avoid excessive sentencing disparities while maintaining flexibility sufficient to individualize sentences where necessary."

While Breyer wrote the crucial opinion, the pivotal player in the case was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only one of the nine justices who voted both to hold the current sentencing system unconstitutional and to preserve the guidelines in voluntary form.

Joining Breyer and Ginsburg were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy.

The other majority consisted of Ginsburg and Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas.

Stevens sharply criticized the court's split decision, calling Breyer's solution a "gross impropriety." Scalia labeled it a recipe for "havoc" in the federal criminal justice system.

While the decision will preserve at least some role for the sentencing guidelines, the precise practical impact beyond that remains to be worked out.

Like a twist of a gigantic Rubik's Cube, the court's decision changed the entire structure of criteria facing thousands of federal criminal defendants, the lawyers who represent them, the prosecutors who charge them and the judges who sentence them.

As one example of the Breyer opinion's wide impact, the new appellate standard it introduces for sentences, "reasonableness," effectively strikes down the Feeney Amendment, a 2003 law that had further restricted federal trial judges' latitude in sentencing by giving appeals courts more power to overturn their decisions.

The federal courts issue more than 60,000 criminal sentences each year, according to the Justice Department.

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