Supreme Court Watch
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TERENCE SMITH: The right to a jury trial was at issue in two rulings today. The Justices said that only juries, not judges, can make the critical decisions that determine whether a convicted killer lives or dies.
The court also ruled that judges could extend sentences of people who use guns in crimes, even if a jury had not convicted the defendant on any charges specifically related to the weapon.
For more on these decisions, we’re joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for The Chicago Tribune. Jan, welcome.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: Today’s decisions really dealt, then, with what the respective roles are of judges and juries in capital cases.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. Justice Ginsburg– Ruth Bader Ginsburg– authored the first decision, the one involving the death row inmates. And in announcing that opinion for… from the bench today, she, in quite dramatic fashion, said, this case really is about a simple question: Who decides? Is it the judge or is it the jury?
And the court today decided that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, the right to a jury trial, mandates that certain facts that have been in a jury trial, that a jury must decide certain facts, that it cannot be up to a judge to step in at the end of a trial after a jury has already convicted someone, and look at evidence that the jury hadn’t heard — aggravating factors, for example — and then impose a death sentence.
TERENCE SMITH: And this has been a big issue, and a controversial one, among prosecutors and the law enforcement community.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Absolutely, and that’s because of a ruling that the court handed down in 2000, two years ago, involving a man named Charles Apprendi. That case sent an earthquake through the criminal justice system, because in that case the court decided and emphasized, really for the first time so directly, that juries must decide all facts that could increase a defendant’s sentence, his maximum sentence.
Let me explain that case a little bit, and then that will get us up to speed today, briefly. I mean, that involved, like I said, a man named Charles Apprendi; he pleaded guilty to shooting a gun into his neighbor’s home. At sentencing, however, the prosecution added a different crime. They sought to prosecute him also under a state hate crime law. That would increase his sentence from ten years, for firing the gun, to 12 years. The court ruled…
TERENCE SMITH: That was because the defendant… the victim was an African-American.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right, I’m sorry. That’s right. So the court ruled in that case that because that would have increased his maximum sentence, and was evidence not heard before a jury, that his sentence was unconstitutional.
That’s the case that has gotten us to the point where we are today, and where countless lower courts in the two years since have been struggling with exactly what the Supreme Court meant by the Apprendi case and what impact that it was going to have.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, the court was divided on this. What did the majority have to say and what did the minority have to say?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, this case today… like I said, I mean, it was written by Justice Ginsburg, and she emphasized that if the court, in the year 2000 in the Apprendi case, was going to say that juries must decide these facts that could increase a person’s maximum sentence– if we’re going to rule that, if we’re going to say that a judge just can’t tack on two years– then certainly juries must decide facts that could subject someone to the ultimate penalty, the death penalty.
Two people dissented: the Chief Justice and Justice O’Connor, just as they did in the case two years ago, and they insisted again today that the case two years ago was wrongly decided, that it had destabilized the nation’s criminal justice system and overburdened the state courts and state prosecutors, and that today’s decision, like the one two years ago, was simply wrongheaded.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the practical impact on people who have been convicted of crimes and may be awaiting execution?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: In the first case that we talked about, involving a man named Timothy Lane from Arizona, the effect could be quite dramatic because it strikes down death sentencing… death row capital sentencing schemes in five states, and calls into question the sentences of 168 inmates who now are on death row in those states. Legal observers I spoke with today said that many may not ultimately prevail, but nonetheless, they have a claim that their sentences also should be overturned.
TERENCE SMITH: So they may be reopened.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. It also affects laws in four other states that are similar, not directly like the Arizona law issued today, but there are another 500 or more inmates on death row in those states. It could have quite a dramatic impact.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, the second case today went to the issue of sentencing.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Another case again coming out of this 2000 Apprendi case involving the hate crime law from New Jersey. And this case was a slightly different issue and it asks whether or not judges could increase the mandatory minimum sentences.
It involved a man named William Harris, and Mr. Harris was a pawnshop owner, and he sold marijuana to his friends in small amounts from his pawnshop. He also wore a gun on his hip because he owned a pawnshop.
Well, when the government got wind of this, they charged him with violating federal drug and gun laws– the drug laws for the marijuana distribution, the gun laws because he wore the gun in the course of his business.
At trial… he disputed the gun charge, and at trial he thought he was facing five years. That was the minimum — five years… five to seven years, I should say, because he could be subject to seven years minimum sentence if the judge found he had brandished the handgun, as opposed to just having the gun in his possession.
He argued that that’s unconstitutional, that a judge should not be able to make that call, the brandishing call, that that wasn’t a sentencing issue at all. And today the court disagreed. It said that the judge could make that call, that the brandishing notion was a sentencing element, and that Mr. Harris could, in fact, be sentenced to seven years in prison.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet, you had a dissent there, as well.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: A very strong and quite passionate dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote for the most liberal justices on the court, Justices…
TERENCE SMITH: Which is an odd pairing.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: …Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, right, which shows that this court… we like to think, particularly at this time of year, we get these 5-4 rulings, that they’re always 5-4, conservative-liberal, but this court doesn’t wear easy labels. Justice Thomas was very passionate today that this factor should have been submitted to a jury and charged in an indictment.
The jury should have been… he should have been entitled to a jury trial on whether or not he had brandished that gun. And in quite stirring language, Justice Thomas wrote about the vital constitutional liberties at stake here, and raised very serious concerns that people like Mr. Harris weren’t getting their right under the Sixth Amendment to a jury trial.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Jan Crawford Greenburg, thank you so much.