The U.S. Supreme Court will plunge into an important criminal law issue on Monday, the first day of its 2004-05 term. Acknowledging the turmoil caused by June’s decision in a Washington State sentencing case known as Blakely, the justices have scheduled a special oral-argument session for Monday afternoon, says the Christian Science Monitor. At issue is to what extent federal judges can use sentencing guidelines to increase punishments when the facts they rely on for a greater penalty were not presented and proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Last term’s decision reversed a sentence issued under guidelines in Washington State. The high court ruled that the state’s guidelines violated the jury-trial requirement of the Sixth Amendment.
The high court also is reviewing a Missouri Supreme Court decision that struck down the juvenile death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment. The state court relied on a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that executing mentally retarded individuals violated Eighth Amendment protections. Those same principles should apply to 16- and 17-year-old defendants, the state court ruled. The question now is whether a majority of justices believe that “evolving standards of decency” in the U.S. have shifted enough to support a holding that executing teenage criminals is so cruel and unusual that it violates the Constitution. All eyes will be on Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. If one of them sides with the court’s more-liberal wing on the death-penalty issue, it will probably produce a decision further restricting the death penalty.