For nearly two years since the Supreme Court made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory, the criminal justice system has been waiting for the justices to explain what “advisory” means and how much discretion federal judges really have, says the New York Times. Last Friday, the court selected two cases to resolve two of the most pressing issues. The first is whether a sentence within the guideline range should be presumed reasonable, a presumption that effectively insulates the sentence from appeal. The second is what a judge must do to justify a sentence substantially shorter than the lowest sentence the guidelines provide.
What approach Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will take toward sentencing doctrine and the roles of judges and juries remains to be seen. Each of the two appeals being heard by the court was brought a federal public defender's office. The defendant in a case from North Carolina, is Victor A. Rita Jr., 57, who was convicted of making false statements in connection with a federal investigation into the sale of kits for making machine guns. The defendant in the second case is a 21-year-old first offender, Mario Claiborne, who was convicted in St. Louis of possessing a small quantity of crack cocaine. His attorney persuaded the judge to impose a sentence of 15 months, sharply lower than the guidelines range of 37 to 46 months.