Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing

2005-01-12-Supreme Court-sentencing 

Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


Ginsburg, Breyer split in Supreme
Court ruling on sentencing rules
,  Jan. 12, 2005

A divided U.S. Supreme Court decided today (Wednesday, Jan. 12) that federal trial judges cannot add time to a prison sentence if the facts leading to that addition were not considered by a jury.

Hearing appeals of two cases in which defendants were found guilty of possession of illegal drugs, the court split 5-4 against a judge adding the time to the sentence upon learning that the defendant possessed even more drugs than the jury had been told. 

The majority opinion held that adding time to the sentence violates the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution which, among other provisions, states that a defendant shall have the right to a trial "by an impartial jury."

The court majority held that this constitutional guarantee is more important than the fact that lower court judges had added time to the sentences to bring them into accord with federal sentencing guidelines. Drug sentences typically vary by the amount of drugs in a defendant's possession.

The two Jewish justices on the court—Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer—were on opposite sides of the question, with Ginsburg voting with the majority led by Justice Paul Stevens and Breyer writing the main dissent.

Breyer said that it is common for judges to base their sentencing in part on pre-sentence reports which include "relevant factual information uncovered after the trial." 

Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, commented that the majority ruling "has major implications to America’s legal system and the way  in which offenders are sentenced for crimes they commit."

Specter said he intends "to thoroughly review the Supreme Court’s decision and work to establish a  sentencing method that will be appropriately tough on career criminals, fair, and consistent with  constitutional requirements.”     —Donald H. Harrison