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Supreme Court Strikes Down California Sentencing Rules

January 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s sentencing guidelines, which had allowed judges the discretion to increase prison time for convicted criminals based on factors not considered by a jury during trial.

NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal is here to explain the decision and its potential impact.

And, Marcia, let’s begin by reminding people of the facts in this case. Who was the petitioner? And what did he come to the high court to get?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: OK. John Cunningham was a former police officer. He was convicted of a felony under California law: continuous sexual abuse of a child, his own child.

After his conviction, California law provides for three levels of sentencing for most felonies. The judge could sentence him to the middle tier of 12 years, but if the judge found mitigating circumstances, he could go down to six years. If the judge found aggravating circumstances, he could go up to 16 years. The sentencing judge found six aggravating factors and sentenced Cunningham to 16 years.

RAY SUAREZ: And today’s decision, what did the high court decide on Mr. Cunningham’s petition?

MARCIA COYLE: The court decided that California’s law was unconstitutional. Cunningham had challenged his sentence and the California sentencing system based on a series of recent Supreme Court decisions that have held that, if there are facts supporting an enhanced sentence, a sentence above the statutory maximum for a particular crime, those facts have to be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, not to a judge.

And that flows, the court has said, from the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

RAY SUAREZ: And in this case, these were facts the judge was deciding on that were not heard by the jury?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

Opinion had 'unusual bedfellows'

RAY SUAREZ: All right. How did the nine justices break down?

MARCIA COYLE: This issue has really made for unusual bedfellows on the court. As I said, it's been a series of decisions that started in the year 2000 with the New Jersey case. The court has split 5-4 in three cases until today.

Unusual bedfellows in the majority, you have some of the court's most conservative justices, like Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, as well as some of the court's more liberal justices, like John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion today. They were in the majority.

In the dissent, again, you have conservative justices, like Anthony Kennedy, and more liberal justices like Stephen Breyer. Also in dissent today was one of the newest justices, Justice Sam Alito. In the majority was the new chief justice, John Roberts.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what were the reasons, given in both the majority opinion and in the dissent for voting the way they did? What was the rationale?

MARCIA COYLE: First of all, there is a deep divide here on the court over what the Sixth Amendment requires. The majority believes the history and the text demand that this is a jury function deciding these facts; the minority does not believe that that's what the Sixth Amendment dictates.

In the majority today, Justice Ginsburg said what was wrong with the California law was that that middle-tier sentence of 12 years for Cunningham was really the statutory maximum. Going up to 16 years, those facts had to be submitted to a jury.

California tried to argue -- and unsuccessfully, obviously -- that the California law was really like the federal system in place right now, that judges had discretion within a range of sentences, and the 16 years was the statutory maximum. The majority, led by Justice Ginsburg, did not agree with California.

RAY SUAREZ: Just out of curiosity, there haven't been that many cases, but has Judge Alito, Associate Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, have they voted on opposite sides of the question very often?

MARCIA COYLE: Not very often, because Justice Alito has not been on the court that long. In this case, it's really hard to say where Justice Alito ultimately stands on the question of the principle that's announced in these series of cases.

His dissent really focused on how the California law operates in practice. He felt it was very much like the federal sentencing system in place and said that, if the California system's unconstitutional, then the federal system is, as well.

But he did not join Justice Kennedy's dissent, in which Justice Kennedy said, I continue to believe that this whole line of cases is incorrect.

So we'll have to see, I think. The court has two more sentencing cases this term that involve the federal system. And we'll have to see where he falls when the court decides those cases.

Implications of the decision

RAY SUAREZ: One legal journal called this the most important criminal procedure case to come before the Roberts' court. Does this immediately reduce the sentence of California inmates in similar circumstances?

MARCIA COYLE: I don't know that it immediately reduces it. I think what's going to happen in California is the state courts are going to face a rush of petitions from prisoners who feel their sentences are illegal, and the courts will have to sort through those. California's attorneys argue that many of those prisoners would get the same sentence even on a sentencing rehearing.

There's also another impact: Prosecutors now are going to have the burden in California, and in other states with similar systems, to make sure those facts that justify an increased sentence are in the indictment or the charge and are presented to the jury.

There are some states that have had to deal with this already. And some states have separate sentencing hearings to consider the facts that might lead to a greater sentence.

Justice Ginsburg said really the ball now is in California's court. The legislature has to decide how it's going to bring its sentencing system into conformance with the Constitution.

The future of criminal sentencing

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in the recent past, the sort of pendulum has been swinging away from giving judges a lot of discretion on sentencing. How long criminal sentences would be...

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does this signal that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think the court signaled that in 2000 when it started on this path. California's system has been in place for 30 years. And states move to these determinant sentencing systems in order to provide, you know, more uniformity in sentencing.

Under the old way, where judges had complete discretion and sentences were indeterminant, criminals were sentenced to a range of years, and sometimes parole boards decided what the final sentence would be, when the prisoner could be released.

So states moved to cabin that kind of discretion and lack of uniformity with these guidelines that were mandatory. And now the Supreme Court is saying -- the majority is saying that the Sixth Amendment, there are real constitutional problems when you take some of this decisionmaking away from juries and give it to judges.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.