Pubdate: Mon, 17 Jan 2005
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)
Copyright: 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Note: by Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial Board


Politics mixed with legalities in the U.S. Supreme Court's two-part ruling 
on federal sentencing guidelines. It opens another round in the power 
struggle between the legislative and judicial branches on who is the 
arbiter of what punishments will be meted out for what crimes.

Wednesday's dual ruling, with roots in a Washington state sentencing case, 
first declared that it was not mandatory that federal judges follow the 
sentencing guidelines imposed by Congress in 1984. It then allowed the 
guidelines to remain in place but only as guidelines. Trial judges may 
disregard the guidelines, but their discretion remains subject to review 
for reasonableness by appellate courts.

The decision is clearly consistent with the high court's earlier holdings 
that judges imposing sentences beyond the "prescribed statutory maximum" 
based on findings not confirmed by a jury amounted to an unconstitutional 
violation of a defendant's right to trial by jury. The decision's second 
element, however, still allows judges at their discretion to impose 
penalties for crimes of which a jury did not convict a defendant.

The justices who dissented from the ruling's second part offered a solution 
that was far less constitutionally charged: Leave it up to prosecutors to 
make stronger cases to jurors, which will result in convictions on charges 
that carry longer sentences.

The majority's ruling may have simply backhanded the dispute back into 
Congress' court. Lawmakers' likely return shot will be more sentencing 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake