Friday, June 22, 2012

Victories for the Defendants

In two sentencing cases, SCOTUS rules for the defendant:

I am so very pleased and grateful the Supreme Court finally handed down today opinions in two of the three big sentencing cases pending this term: we got Southern Union concerning Apprendi's applicability to fines (basic here), and Hill and Dorsey concerning application of the new crack FSA sentencing provisions to pipeline cases (basics here). In both cases, federal defendants prevailed and were able to get a SCOTUS reversal of pro-prosecution rulings issued by federal circuit courts.

The Dorsey v. U.S. (2012) case involved the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (mentioned here) which addressed the inequity in crack cocaine sentencing. The law itself was challenged on the issue of "retroactivity" or whether the new guidelines should be applied to defendants convicted before 2010 but sentenced after the law had been passed (the law itself was unclear). In a 5-4 ruling yesterday (Breyer, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan), the court held that the legislative intent was, in fact, to make the sentencing guidelines retroactive and allow judges to skirt the mandatory minimums of yore (also discussed here and here).

The second case Southern Union concerned excessive fines and whether fines above the statutory maximum  violated the defendant's 6th amendment rights (specifically the Apprendi v. NJ [2000] rule regarding sentences). To put it more simply, if the judge fines an individual beyond the maximum allowed by law, does that violate the defendant's "Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial guarantee [which] requires that any fact (other than the fact of a prior conviction) that increases the maximum punishment authorized for a particular crime be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt." (syllabus Southern Union v U.S. 2012).

The court held 6-3 (an interesting majority of Sotomayor, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg and Kagan) that excessive fines and criminal punishments are one and the same and that an excessive fine meets the Apprendi rule. I've taught Apprendi for over a decade now and am surprised it took this long for a fines case to reach the court on this issue (but relieved nonetheless they ruled as they did).

Next week promises to be a barn-burner (and not because of the Affordable Healthcare Act). The long-awaited decision on the constitutionality of LWOP sentences for juveniles will be announced.

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