Jury Role In Raising Sentences Affirmed
Ruling May Affect States' Procedures
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page A01
A bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that only juries, not judges, may increase criminal sentences beyond the maximums suggested by statutory guidelines, a decision that throws into doubt sentencing procedures used by nine states and possibly the federal government.
By a vote of 5 to 4, the court said a trial judge in Washington state violated the Constitution when he sentenced a convicted kidnapper to 90 months in prison rather than the 53-month maximum prescribed by state law. The judge was following a provision of the law that permits judges to impose higher sentences when they find that the facts warrant harsher punishment.
But the court said the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a jury trial in felony cases means that any facts that would result in a sentence above the range of sentences specifically mentioned in the law must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
"When a judge inflicts a punishment that the jury's verdict alone does not allow . . . the judge exceeds his proper authority," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
The ruling was the latest application of the court's 2000 ruling in Apprendi v. New Jersey, in which the court roiled criminal law by holding for the first time that factual findings a court uses to increase sentences must be made by a jury rather than by a judge.
The court used Apprendi in 2002 to strike down state laws that call for judges, rather than juries, to decide between life imprisonment and death in capital cases. But in a separate case yesterday, the court limited the impact of that ruling by declaring that it would not apply retroactively.
The decision yesterday in Blakely v. Washington, No. 02-1632, may be Apprendi's most significant consequence yet. It poses a direct challenge to the past quarter-century's worth of sentencing reform at both the state and federal levels.
In response to concerns that similar crimes were being punished much differently by judges in different courts, the federal government and some states replaced previous sentencing systems, under which juries determined defendants' guilt or innocence and judges determined sentences pretty much as they saw fit.
The new sentencing guidelines typically established a range of prison time for various crimes, with judges permitted to "depart upward" from that range if they find "aggravating factors" deserving of harsher punishment.
Federal sentencing guidelines were established in 1987, and Washington is one of nine states that have similar systems. The Bush administration supported Washington in the case, out of concern that federal guidelines be kept intact.
"If defendants asserted the right this decision gives them, a very large fraction of the sentences in federal criminal cases and probably a sizable number of criminal cases in states with state sentencing guidelines would be unconstitutional," said William J. Stuntz, a professor of law at Harvard University who specializes in criminal issues.
In a strongly worded dissenting opinion, which she read from the bench in what was, for her, an unusual display of disagreement with the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that "the practical consequences of today's decision may be disastrous."
"If the choice is between adopting a balanced case-by-case approach that takes into consideration the values underlying the Bill of Rights as well as the history of a particular sentencing reform law, and adopting a rigid rule that destroys everything in its path, I will choose the former," she wrote.
O'Connor listed Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon and Pennsylvania as states with systems similar to Washington's.
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