Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, August 3, 2004


Page 1


High Court Expedites Challenges to Sentencing Rules


From Staff and Wire Service Reports


The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to settle whether long-standing federal rules for sentencing criminals violate the Constitution, a question that has thrown federal courthouses into disarray this summer.

The high court said it will hear two cases suggested by the Bush administration. The Justice Department had rushed the appeals just weeks after the court ruled major portions of a state sentencing system unconstitutional.

That system in the state of Washington, like the federal sentencing system, relied on judges to make many decisions that can affect the length of a defendantís sentence. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that juries must decide any matter that can lengthen a sentence beyond the maximum set out in state sentencing guidelines, or the defendant must admit it.

Federal trial judges routinely make such findings as the quantity of drugs involved in a crime or whether a gun was used.

Trial judges and appeals courts have divided over whether the Supreme Courtís ruling in Blakely v. Washington invalidates the federal sentencing system, with some judges concluding that they cannot continue sentencing criminal defendants under the old rules.

The Supreme Court is on its summer hiatus, but nonetheless issued a brief order to add both cases to its calendar. The court said it will hear the cases, both involving federal drug defendants, on the first day of the new court term in October.

The justices gave government lawyers and defense attorneys a tight schedule to file paperwork over the summer.

The high court said nothing yesterday about the urgency of the sentencing issue, but the choice to hear the cases so soon is an indication that the court is well aware of the turmoil caused by its ruling.

Justice Sandra Day OíConnor said as much in a speech last month, in which she echoed her own sharp dissent in the Blakely case. As she and other dissenters predicted, the ruling upset what had been a settled, and presumably constitutional, system in use in each of more than 90 federal trial courts around the country.

The National Center for State Courts released a paper last month identifying California as one of several states in which Blakely is likely to impact state sentencing. The California Supreme Court has moved to address such issues, asking lawyers in two pending cases whether judges can still impose upper base terms and consecutive sentences without submitting predicate factual issues to juries.

The only California appellate court to address Blakely in a published decision is Div. Five of this districtís Court of Appeal, which recently held that judges in three-strikes cases must continue to determine whether a defendant convicted on multiple felony counts committed the crimes on separate occasions. Such a finding makes consecutive sentences mandatory.


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