U.S. Supreme Court

Court Supports Guidelines Sentences


Appeals courts may presume that a sentence within federal guidelines is reasonable, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Such a presumption does not violate the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, said the main opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

However, Breyer said the presumption is not binding, SCOTUSblog reports.

“The presumption reflects the fact that, by the time an appeals court is considering a within-guidelines sentence on review, both the sentencing judge and the Sentencing Commission will have reached the same conclusion as to the proper sentence in the particular case,” said Breyer.

Breyer was once a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Law professor Douglas Berman writes in his blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, that “a very quick read suggests the main opinion is very supportive of the work of district courts, circuit courts and the Sentencing Commission.” It also could be bad news for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who is challenging a guidelines sentence for lying to investigators, he writes.

However, the real impact of the opinion may not be clear until the lower courts construe it, Berman says. He views the opinion as offering something for everyone–except the defendant whose sentence was affirmed.

The case is Rita v. United States, No. 06–5754 (PDF). The defendant had been sentenced to 33 months in prison after being convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had affirmed the sentence, even though the trial judge had not explicitly analyzed mitigating factors.

The Supreme Court agreed that the trial judge’s opinion was sufficient. “In the present case the sentencing judge’s statement of reasons was brief but legally sufficient,” Breyer wrote.

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