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Sentencing Guidelines

The Supreme Court on Wednesday declared that federal judges are no longer obligated to abide by the controversial sentencing guidelines that were established by Congress in 1987.

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    Hundreds of thousands of defendants and probably just as many lawyers were anxiously awaiting today's Supreme Court ruling on the fairness of the nation's federal sentencing guidelines.

    First, for some background and explanation, we turn to NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune.

    Very complicated ruling today, Jan. Tell us, it wasn't exactly crystal clear. Help us with the bottom line.


    No. In fact, much is not explained in this decision or left unsaid. And experts are predicting chaos in the lower courts as they try to make sense of some of the Supreme Court's pronouncements today.

    But I think most people agree that the court today gave federal trial judges more discretion when they're sentencing criminal defendants. The court did a lot of things in its opinion today.

    It said that the Constitution applies to the sentencing guidelines, and it said that we need to rethink how we look at those sentencing guidelines. And then it also said that those guidelines should be considered advisory.


    So what's the balance of power between what judges get to do in sentencing and what juries get to do in sentencing?


    Keep in mind before today's ruling the court had been kind of going down this road that had been scaling back the role of judges in sentencing. It had ruled in a number of cases that juries should be deciding these critical facts that could enhance a defendant's sentence and that the judge should not be making those kinds of calls.

    So that was an issue today in this decision and whether that thinking would apply to the federal sentencing guidelines because the sentencing guidelines require judges to make those calls and sentence defendants based on facts that are not necessarily before the jury.

    So today the court in really two different opinions by two different justices and different lineup of justices first said that the Sixth Amendment, the right to a jury trial, does apply to the sentencing guidelines. But then what do you do about that? What does that mean for the guidelines?

    And at that point an entirely different group, with the exception of Justice Ginsburg, she crossed over, group of Justices stepped in and said, the solution here to this problem is to make the guidelines advisory so they're no longer mandatory. Judges can look at these issues but they're not bound to follow them.


    So it was a five to four but with different fives and fours, not completely different. It was kind of "on one hand" and "on the other hand" ruling wasn't it?


    That's right. There are many interesting things we can talk about here but at the outset when we think about a five/four court; we think that this court is pretty conservative, at least people view it that way, and that it's five Justices coming together on that side.

    Today's decision shows that this court does not wear those labels very well. This line of thinking they've tried to kind of scale back some of these judges' discretion on the facts that they can decide has been led by two of the court's most liberal justices joined by two of their more conservative Justices.

    And the same thing goes for those in dissent.


    Why do these guidelines exist anyway? What was a need for them and what is the unhappiness with them?


    Well, Congress… many people believe that there was a crisis in sentencing in the early 1980s. Defendants in different parts of the country and different courtrooms who were, you know, committing similar crimes and had similar histories were getting wildly divergent sentences.

    So Congress stepped in and passed the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984, created a sentencing commission and the sentencing commission set up these guidelines that judges are required to follow when they're sentencing defendants in federal courts.

    It was designed to address these discrepancies, to curtail some of this judicial discretion. Today's decision may give some of that discretion back to the judges.


    Now Justice Breyer, a Clinton appointee, had a unique role in today's outcome, if you can call it an outcome.


    Yes because he helped craft the guidelines well before he came on to the bench. Justice Breyer has been one of those Justices who have resisted this move towards scaling back some of the judges' authority.

    And so today he disagreed with Justice Stevens in the first part of the opinion that said the Constitution would apply in this case to the sentencing guidelines, but he ended up carrying the day because his ruling that he did get a majority for is the ruling that says the guidelines are, in fact, advisory, that judges must look at them, they must consider them, but they're not required to follow them.

    That was his solution to this constitutional problem. Justice Ginsburg, who had been with the others, walked over and joined with Justice Breyer and gave him that majority.


    Is there a retroactive effect to what the court did today? Are we seeing a lot of defendants who are now sitting in their jail cells saying, ah ha, here is my opening?


    It does not appear to be. It appears it would apply only to cases that are pending, that haven't been finally decided.

    But some people I talked to today said that certainly there's nothing there that would not prevent these defendants from going into court and trying to file an appeal to have their sentence revisited. But it does not appear to stretch back that far.

    But others today said, wait a minute, this is not necessarily a big win for defendants. I mean, keep in mind we're giving judges more discretion. They're not bound by the guidelines so that can cut both ways.

    If you're a defendant and you had an unforgiving judge you may be reluctant to go back and ask him to revisit your sentence because you might get a harsher sentence at the end. In fact one of the defendants whose case was before the court today may not see any change in his sentence at all.


    Okay, Jan, thanks.