The Right Coast

July 07, 2004
By Mike Rappaport

Lost in the attention that the terrorism-detention cases received is Blakely v. Washington, an important case on the right to a jury trial, which may lead to a Supreme Court decision holding the federal sentencing guidelines to be unconstitutional.

The federal sentencing guidelines limit the discretion that judges have in giving out sentences. Before the guidelines were passed, a judge might be able to choose a sentence between 1 and 30 years for a crime, and different judges would choose sentences of different lengths. The guidelines significantly constrained these choices. This was a good thing.

The guidelines, however, allow judges to depart from these limits and impose higher sentences if they find certain facts, such as the defendant acted with deliberate cruelty. The Supreme Court believed, in the context of a state statute similar to the federal sentencing guidelines, that the decision whether the defendant acted with deliberate cruelty, had to be made by a jury.

The hope is that the guidelines can be modified to comply with this constitutional right to a jury trial, but it is not clear that a workable system can be devised.

For criticism of the decision, see this op ed by my colleague, Keven Cole, who is sentencing law expert.