In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down federal sentencing guidelines because they forced judges in some cases to increase a criminal’s punishment based on information that had never been proved to a jury. Five justices crafted a remedy to retain most of the guidelines, but the result has confused many judges, says the Christian Science Monitor. Today, the high court will hear oral argument in two cases that may help clear up some of the confusion. “We are talking about the rules that govern every federal case – 80,000 cases a year,” says University of Arizona law Prof. Marc Miller.
At issue is how much weight judges should give to the guidelines now that they are only advisory. Some argue that judges should be free to adopt or reject the guidelines on an equal footing with several other factors Congress has identified as important sentencing objectives. Others say the guidelines must be afforded an exalted status because they represent the collective wisdom of the U.S. Sentencing Commission created by Congress. Five of the 12 federal appeals courts have embraced the former approach, while seven have embraced the latter approach. Specifically, the question is whether any sentence imposed within the range of the guidelines should be presumed reasonable.