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Supreme Court Limits Judges' Sentencing Ability
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Supreme Court Limits Judges' Sentencing Ability



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated California's criminal sentencing system. As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, state officials say the ruling could require thousands of prisoners to be resentenced.

NINA TOTENBERG: California has more criminal cases each year than any other state. So any decision affecting California's sentencing system has, almost by definition, a large impact. The case ruled on today involved a California man named John Cunningham who is 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 to the upper term of 16 years. Today, however, the Supreme Court by a 6-3 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 was the court's other new justice, Samuel Alito, joined by the liberal Stephen Bryer and the centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy. California State officials said they did not know how many prisoners would have to be resentenced, but guesstimates at the oral argument last fall were at least 1,000. And today, state officials told NPR the number would be in the thousands, plural.

Not everyone with an upper-level sentence would have to be resentenced because many have already served up their higher sentences.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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