The Leadership Conference is working diligently to see that Tom Perez is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez is an eminently qualified public servant and consensus builder who has dedicated his career to ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and have the opportunity to succeed. He has served with integrity and distinction at the local, state and national level, compiling an outstanding record of achievement.
Supreme Court Decision Plants Confusion in Sentencing Guidelines
Feature Story by Civilrights.org staff - 8/31/2004The Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington might be a "number-10 earthquake," in dissenting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's view, or simply the first step in reworking federal sentencing guidelines. What is certain is that the June decision has sparked much debate within the U.S. criminal justice system.
At issue in Blakely was a challenge to Washington state's mandatory sentencing guideline system. Under Washington's system, the state has both broad statutory ranges for punishment of certain crimes and a mandatory guideline system, which sets narrower ranges for sentences based on particular facts in each case. In addition, based on additional factors found by the judge, defendants are subject to increases in their ultimate sentence beyond the guideline range (known as "enhancements").
In its 5 to 4 decision in Blakely, the Supreme Court held that any facts leading to a lengthened sentence -- beyond the prescribed sentencing guideline maximum -- must either be decided beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury or admitted by the defendant. Otherwise, the Court held, there would be a violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.
Although Blakely addressed Washington state's sentencing system, the general rule articulated by the Court could be interpreted to apply to the federal sentencing system, which also provides for mandatory sentencing guidelines, and to many similar state guideline systems.
In the wake of Blakely, a number of lower federal courts have issued divergent opinions on the application of the decision to the federal sentencing system. The Seventh Circuit, in United States v. Booker, held the federal sentencing guideline system unconstitutional. The Second Circuit, in United States v. Fanfan, certified the question to the Supreme Court after the district court pursuant to Blakely, reverted to the maximum guidelines sentence.
On August 2, 2004, the Supreme Court grant expedited review for these two cases to determine the fate of the federal guideline system. Both cases will be heard on October 4, the first day of the new court term.
While some view Blakely's application to the federal system as a logical extension of the Court's decision, others believe that differences between federal and state sentencing guidelines – such as the role of the United States Sentencing Commission in defining the guideline ranges – make such an application inappropriate.
Soon after the Court's decision in Blakely, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss its repercussions for the federal system. While some members of Congress expressed interest in acting quickly to enact a legislative response to Blakely in an attempt to shield the federal system from constitutional challenge, many civil rights and social justice groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), urged members of Congress not to make decisions yet.
"We oppose any short-term legislative 'fix' in response to Blakely," LCCR stated in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D. Vt. "Now that the Supreme Court has granted expedited review of two cases that present the question of whether Blakely applies to the federal sentencing guidelines, it would be especially unwise for Congress to act prematurely and therefore add an additional layer of confusion and uncertainty to the federal system just weeks before the Court hears argument."
Some legal scholars fear that in seeking fairness, the Blakely decision will instead wreak havoc by invalidating parts, or all, of the federal sentencing guidelines adopted 20 years ago. The purpose of those guidelines, they say, was to create balance and fairness in the system, by limiting judicial discretion in ways that produce predictable outcomes.
Blakely supporters and other observers, meanwhile, see the decision as a chance to restructure the federal sentencing guideline system, which has come up short of its goal to undo racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.
While groups like LCCR have not taken a position on the constitutionality of the federal sentencing guidelines in the wake of Blakely, they want to ensure that civil rights goals remain part of the mix, whatever the outcome.
In its letter, LCCR stated, "If the Supreme Court holds the guidelines unconstitutional, civil rights concerns should be at the heart of the debate over how to restructure the sentencing system."