Supreme Court Throws Out Judge-Determined Aggravated Sentence

Defendants got one win today from the Supreme Court, and it's a pretty big one. Many states around the country have sentencing schemes which call for a certain sentence or range of sentence for an offense unless the judge determines that there are aggravating factors--in which case a greater sentence can be imposed. The Supreme Court today ruled that for the Judge to decide on the aggravating factor, rather than a jury, violates a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights under its Apprendi decision (the same Apprendi it decided today did not apply retroactively in death cases.)

Here's the syllabus of Blakely v. Washington (html). The text of the opinion (html) is here. It was written by Justice Scalia. The basic facts at issue:

Petitioner Ralph Howard Blakely, Jr., pleaded guilty to the kidnaping of his estranged wife. The facts admitted in his plea, standing alone, supported a maximum sentence of 53 months. Pursuant to state law, the court imposed an “exceptional” sentence of 90 months after making a judicial determination that he had acted with “deliberate cruelty.” App. 40, 49. We consider whether this violated petitioner’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

Update: From New York defense lawyer Jack Litman:

The decision has a sublime hommage to NACDL. Justice Scalia found an Apprendi violation in the state of Washington's sentencing scheme (increasing the punishment, but not beyond the written statutory maximum based on judicial findings at sentencing). In support of his majority opinion, and to debunk Justice Breyer's dissent claiming that Scalia's decision is bad for criminal defendants, Scalia pointed to the amici who had filed briefs in the case. Justice Scalia wrote: "It is hard to believe that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers was somehow duped into arguing for the wrong side". Touche!

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