The US Supreme Court has set the stage for a historic transformation of the criminal justice system in a ruling that requires federal judges to find a new way to mete out punishments to convicted criminals.
The nation's highest court Wednesday struck down a portion of the federal sentencing guidelines system designed to help judges hand down similar punishments for similar crimes - a system that has been in operation in federal courthouses for 17 years.
At the same time, however, a majority of justices upheld the basic structure of the guidelines system. The move may help reduce the level of confusion as federal courts attempt to apply the Supreme Court's decision to the estimated 80,000 criminal defendants sentenced each year within the federal court system.
Much of the federal sentencing system had slowed to a near halt since last June when the high court issued a ruling raising serious questions about the viability of the sentencing guidelines. Legal analysts say the decision has lived up to expectations.
"This is one of the most important decisions involving practical effects in the criminal system in United States history," says Marc Miller, a sentencing expert at Emory Law School. "It ranks up there with Miranda."
In effect, the high court issued two decisions in one, with each ruling reflecting the views of different factions of justices.
By a 5-to-4 vote, the justices said the application of the guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. This group of justices, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, said the guidelines impermissibly allowed judges in some instances to become a jury of one by handing down sentences that exceeded the prison term authorized by a jury's verdict at trial.
A second group of justices, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled 5 to 4 that the guidelines system could be largely salvaged from the constitutional problems identified by the other justices by severing the portion of the federal sentencing statute that makes the guidelines mandatory. By striking the mandatory requirement, the guidelines would become merely advisory, thus permitting judges to tailor particular sentences in light of other legally authorized concerns.
"We do not doubt that Congress ... intended to create a form of mandatory guidelines system. But, given today's constitutional holding, that is not a choice that remains open," Justice Breyer writes.
He adds, "Ours, of course, is not the last word: The ball now lies in Congress' court. The national legislature is equipped to devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system, compatible with the Constitution, that Congress judges best for the federal system of justice."
Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University, says the splintered nature of the decision may only sow more confusion. "The need to provide clarity for the lower courts took a back seat to the justices' strong beliefs about their own view of the case," Professor Berman says.
One practical effect of the ruling is that prosecutors will probably be forced to return more detailed indictments and to prove, at trial, facts they believe may be relevant at sentencing.
Sentencing guidelines were designed to limit judicial discretion while adding a degree of uniformity to punishments. To make sentences more predictable and proportionate, and to avoid unintended disparities among similarly situated defendants, the guidelines system applied an array of relevant factors to help guide judges toward a narrow sentencing range.
In addition to the core criminal charges, judges were required to consider many other factors such as criminal history, whether the defendant used a firearm, whether any victims were harmed, and whether the defendant admitted guilt and helped authorities prosecute others. Each factor was assigned a numerical value to be plugged into a chart that would reveal an appropriate sentencing range.
Where the system ran into constitutional difficulties is when a judge at a sentencing hearing accepted certain factors that increased the defendant's sentence beyond the punishment authorized by the jury's verdict.
While a jury verdict requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a judge has had the power under the sentencing guidelines to significantly boost sentences based on factors proved to the judge by a much lower burden of proof during a sentencing hearing conducted long after trial.
Prior to the introduction of the federal guidelines in 1987, federal judges had wide discretion to use whatever factors they felt were relevant to determine an appropriate sentence. Sometimes the wide discretion allowed impermissible biases - such as race and ethnicity - to creep into the system.
The guidelines helped make the sentencing process more transparent and made it more difficult for personal bias to play a substantial role.
But even as some supporters defended the guidelines for injecting certainty and fairness into the sentencing process, others criticized the system for tying the hands of judges in certain cases.
The decision stems from the high court's decision last June invalidating a portion of Washington State's sentencing guidelines in a case called Blakely v. Washington. In this case, the court ruled that sentencing guidelines permitting a judge to sentence an individual to a longer term than called for by the crime found by the jury violates the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
Although the court at the time said it was not extending its ruling to the federal guidelines, many experts said that would be the inevitable result.
And many federal judges seem to have agreed. The June decision caused a backlog in federal criminal cases, as judges awaited more specific instructions from the Supreme Court.
The court took up the issue on an emergency basis. The justices heard oral arguments on the first day of its new term on Oct. 4 in two combined cases, US v. Booker and US v. Fanfan.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.