Federal Judge Rules Application of Sentencing Guidelines Unconstitutional

Who would have thought? Conservative, Bush appointee Paul Cassell, who is now a federal judge in Utah, has found the U.S. sentencing guidelines to be unconstitutional in their application.

Law Professor Douglas Berman, who writes the new law blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, says Cassell is the first federal judge to officially declare the federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional after Blakely. Here is a link to Judge Cassell's opinion in US v. Croxford.

A Utah judge on Tuesday declared federal sentencing guidelines cannot be constitutionally applied in a child pornography case, taking the lead in a national debate sparked last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. "I take no pleasure in striking down the guidelines today . . . but the court's fundamental obligation is to uphold the Constitution," U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell said in declining to follow the guidelines implemented by Congress more than 15 years ago.

Though he was careful to say his decision applied only to the case at hand, Cassell later noted in a 39-page order the "potentially cataclysmic implications of such a holding." In his written order, Cassell announced he intends to continue issuing sentences without regard for the guidelines "until the constitutionality . . . has been definitely resolved by the Supreme Court." However, he said he will also issue a "fallback sentence" to avoid resentencing each defendant if the guidelines are ultimately found to be constitutional.

Thursday's ruling in Blakely v. Washington called into question the constitutionality of tens of thousands of sentences imposed under state and federal sentencing guidelines. The divided court held that judges cannot legally rely on facts not proven beyond a reasonable doubt to lengthen a defendant's prison term beyond that set out in sentencing guidelines. Though the decision applied only to Washington state's sentencing guidelines, a dissenting opinion noted the similarity between that framework and the federal guidelines. Cassell, too, found the similarities too great to ignore. "Doesn't the rationale also lead to the conclusion that the federal sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional?" Cassell asked Tuesday. "Isn't it time for the other shoe to drop?"

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