A Supreme Court decision yesterday striking down the criminal sentencing system of Washington State cast doubt on whether federal sentencing guidelines dating from the 1980s can survive a constitutional challenge, says the New York Times. Split 5-to-4 across the court’s usual ideological lines, the justices continued a five-year-long debate over the roles of judges and juries in sentencing. The new case cast doubt on the validity of thousands of sentences at both the state and federal level. Sentencing in about a dozen states is likely to be affected.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion said Washington’s permitting judges to raise a sentence beyond the ordinary range for the crime violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. The facts supporting increased sentences must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, he said. “There is nothing to suggest that the federal guidelines would get different treatment,” Stephanos Bibas, a former federal prosecutor now the University of Iowa law school. Dissening, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor depicted the federal guidelines as in peril. “What I have feared most has now come to pass,” she said. “Over 20 years of sentencing reform are all but lost, and tens of thousands of criminal judgments are in jeopardy.”