The Supreme Court has ordered federal appeals courts to reconsider more than 400 criminal sentences in light of the high court’s Jan. 12 ruling making federal sentencing guidelines advisory, the Washington Post reports. The justices had been flooded with petitions from defendants who wanted their sentences reviewed after the court struck down a state sentencing guidelines plan in June, putting the federal sentencing guidelines in jeopardy.
The sheer volume of cases demonstrated the wide and still largely unresolved ramifications of the decision. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Douglas Berman, an expert on federal sentencing law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. The high court said that the Constitution forbids the practice, common under the guidelines, of using facts found by a judge to tack extra years onto criminal sentences. Every defendant is entitled to a jury trial on the facts that could affect his punishment, the court ruled. Trial judges now are free to impose the sentences they deem appropriate, as long as they consult the guidelines and as long as the sentences are found “reasonable” by the appeals courts. Because the appeals courts were divided over the constitutionality of federal sentencing before the high court ruling, it is unlikely that they will produce a uniform definition of “reasonableness” now, Berman said.