Supreme Court Limits Judges' Sentencing Ability

The U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of part of California's sentencing laws means that the state will likely have to re-sentence thousands of prisoners. The court reiterated previous rulings that the constitutional right to a jury trial requires judges to sentence people based only on the factors that have been addressed by the jury.

California has more criminal cases each year than any other state. So any decision affecting California's sentencing system has a large impact.

The case that was ruled on today involved a California man named John Cunningham, who was convicted of sexually abusing his 10-year-old son. Under state law, his punishment could have been any one of three prison terms: the lowest, six years; the middle term, 12 years; or the upper term, 16 years. The law required the trial judge to sentence Cunningham to nothing more than the middle term of 12 years unless the judge found at least one additional aggravating fact, and in this case the judge, by a preponderance of the evidence, found several aggravating facts, including the vulnerability of the victim. Cunningham was sentenced the upper term of 16 years.

Today, however, the Supreme Court by a 6-to-3 vote invalidated that sentence and the state sentencing scheme. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that under the Sixth-Amendment right to a jury trial, any fact that exposes a defendant to a greater potential sentence must be found by a jury, not a judge, and must be established by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, not the more flexible preponderance of the evidence standard.

As in the past in these sentencing decisions, the court majority included justices who often disagree in other criminal cases. Joining the liberal Ginsburg were her frequent ideological soul mates, Justices Stevens and Souter, as well as conservative justices Scalia, Thomas, and the new Chief Justice John Roberts. Dissenting were the court's other new justice, Samuel Alito; the liberal Stephen Breyer, and centrist Anthony Kennedy.

In her opinion for the court, Justice Ginsburg said that it's the state's choice how it will bring its system into constitutional compliance. Several states, she noted, have modified their systems by calling on the jury to find any fact necessary for the imposition of an elevated sentence.

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