Drug dealers from Wisconsin and Maine are at the center of a legal dispute that has brought the federal criminal justice system to a near standstill, the Christian Science Monitor reports. For the past three months, federal prosecutors nationwide have been scrambling to shore up thousands of their most important cases. Defense attorneys are asking for continuances. And many federal trial judges are slowing down their caseloads. The moment they have been waiting for arrives today in an emergency oral-argument session at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices are expected to use the cases of convicted drug dealers Freddie Booker and Duncan Fanfan to test the constitutional validity of the federal sentencing guidelines.
The question is whether the federal sentencing guidelines impermissibly empower judges to perform a function the Constitution reserves for jurors. How the high court answers that question will have implications not only for how federal sentences are meted out, but also for how indictments are written, trials conducted, and plea bargains negotiated. “This necessarily affects every case that works its way through the criminal justice system in some way,” says Douglas Berman, a law professor at the Ohio State College of Law. Berman says the debate stems from a modern transformation of the role of judges in the sentencing process. Historically, judges have had wide discretion in the types of information they could use at sentencing to help them determine the best way to rehabilitate a defendant. Judges functioned like physicians, seeking to treat and cure defendants rather than merely punish and incarcerate them. “Nobody talks about having procedural rights with their doctor. You want the doctor to know as much as possible to best cure the aliment,” Berman says.