Court confusion

Jul 28, 2004 at 12:00 am

It seems the U.S. Supreme Court has given the green light to judges around the nation to sidestep federal sentencing guidelines — even if that wasn’t its intention.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court held last month that Washington state’s sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional because they violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The majority reasoned that the guidelines allowed judges to increase a defendant’s sentence based on factors that had neither been considered by a jury, nor included in a guilty plea.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that juries, not judges, should consider all variables in deciding a defendant’s sentence.

“It’s tremendous,” says Detroit criminal defense attorney Neil Fink. “Prior to this, all the offense variables that could increase or enhance a sentencing were decided by a judge.”

However, Scalia added that the ruling does not address federal guidelines — only Washington state’s.

Huh? It would seem to the armchair barristers here at News Hits that if the guidelines are unconstitutional at the state level, the same would hold true for the feds.

Scalia, who we understand actually went to law school, says not so.

We’re not the only ones bumfuzzled by Scalia’s reasoning. His twisted decision has resulted in federal courts around the country citing the Washington case as a reason for sidestepping federal guidelines.

This month the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews federal cases in four states, including Michigan, overturned a lower court ruling in which a Tennessee woman was sentenced to six months in jail after she pleaded guilty to $21,000 in bank fraud. The woman appealed, arguing that the lower court had the option to sentence her to a halfway house and home confinement. The Sixth Circuit agreed.

“[A] district judge should … view the guidelines in general as recommendations to be considered and then applied only if the judge believes they are appropriate and in the interests of justice in the particular case.”

Several other courts also have ignored federal sentencing guidelines. But it seems the U.S. Department of Justice won’t stand for this sort of judicial discretion. According to a recent New York Times story, the Justice Department plans to “rush” before the Supreme Court “in a matter of days to salvage the guidelines.” Two cases may soon be brought before the high court, which could rule on them as early as September, the report states.

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