Monday, January 14, 2013

What Apprendi means

The Supreme Court this morning, Jan. 14th, devoted an hour to oral arguments on the role of judges and juries when the law requires a minimum sentence after conviction of a specific crime. The case is Alleyne v. United States (docket 11-9335).

Our thanks again is to Lyle Denniston at ScotusBlog for his insight here.

"For several decades, the Supreme Court has been struggling," Denniston says " — and often has been deeply divided — over how to sort out the roles of juries and judges in the process of criminal sentencing — specifically, who gets to decide the facts that bear upon how severe a sentence may be? Much of the time, the focus has been on whose duty it is to decide the facts that will support a sentence that is longer than the maximum specified for a given crime. Since the Court’s decision in 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Court majority has ruled repeatedly that, if a fact is going to lead to an enhanced sentence, prosecutors have to prove that to the jury and must do so by satisfying the toughest legal standard: beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the Apprendi decision left intact older rulings by the Court that a judge, applying the least-demanding standard (preponderance of the evidence), had the authority to decide to increase a sentence above the minimum. That involves what are called “mandatory minimum sentences.” A legislature decides that, for some crimes, the convicted individual should have to face the prospect of a minimum sentence that is higher than the floor while still below the maximum. The theory is that something about a specific crime made it more serious and thus deserving of more punishment. This principle was established clearly by the Court in the 1986 decision in McMillan v. Pennsylvania. It has since been reaffirmed, but by a shakier majority, and the Court is now set to reconsider the issue.

Mr. Denniston’s recapitulation of those arguments is here..  

The Petition for a writ of certiorari and Response are here.

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