543 U.S. 220 (2005), argued 4 Oct. 2004, decided 12 Jan. 2005 by vote of 5 to 4; Stevens for the Court in part, joined by Scalia, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg; Breyer for the Court in part, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, Kennedy, and Ginsburg; Stevens in dissent in part, joined by Souter and Scalia; Scalia and Thomas in dissent in part; Breyer in dissent in part, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Kennedy. Sentencing guidelines were adopted for federal courts and for many state courts in the mid-1980s, as part of widespread reform efforts to establish a uniform sentencing policy for convicted defendants. In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment prohibited judges from increasing criminal sentences beyond statutory maximums based on facts other than those presented to the jury. Four years later, in Blakely v. Washington (2004), the Court applied this decision to state mandatory sentencing guidelines.
When the Seventh and First Circuits cited Blakely in upholding the assignment of lower sentences than required by federal guidelines for two convicted drug dealers—Freddie J. Booker and Ducan Fanfan, respectively—the government appealed, with the Court consolidating the cases. The Court's decision was announced by two groups of justices. Justice John Paul Stevens, for the majority, held that the rule of Apprendi, as applied in Blakely, governed federal sentencing guidelines. Stevens ruled that the Sixth Amendment prohibited any increase in punishment based on facts not submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, for a different majority of the Court, addressed the question of how to remedy the constitutional violation in U.S. v. Fanfan. The federal sentencing statute that required district courts to impose a sentence within the range mandated by the law was judged incompatible with the constitutional holding in Booker and had to be severed and excised from the statute, as did a similar provision that governed the handling of appeals. Thus, under this ruling, federal sentencing guidelines are discretionary. Judges may follow them, but they cannot be required to do so.
David J. Bodenhamer