New U.S. Supreme Court Decision-Sentencing Guidelines

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a federal criminal sentence within
the Guidelines may be presumed to be reasonable when the case is on appeal.
However, it said that such a presumption is not binding.. Although the
Court was divided in some respects, the vote on the result was 8-1 with
only Justice David H. Souter dissenting in Rita v. U.S. (06-5754).

In discussing its conclusion that such a presumption is not binding,
Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s main opinion said: “The presumption…does not,
like a trial-related evidentiary presumption, insist that one side, or the
other, shoulder a particular burden of persuasion or proof lest they lose
the case…Nor does the presumption reflect strong judicial deference of
the kind that leads appeals courts to grant greater factfinding leeway to
an expert agency than to a district judge. Rather, the presumption reflects
the fact that, by the time an appeals court is considering a
within-Guidelines sentence on review, both the sentencing judge and the
Sentencing Commission will have reached the same conclusion as to the
proper sentence in the particular case. That double determination
significantly increases the likelihood that the sentence is a reasonable
one. Further, the presumption reflects the nature of the Guidelines-writing
task that Congress set for the Commission and the manner in which the
Commission carried out that task.”

The Court added: “A non-binding appellate presumption that a Guidelines
sentence is reasonable does not require the sentencing judge to impose that
sentence. Still less does it forbid the sentencing judge from imposing a
sentence higher than the Guidelines provide for the jury-determined facts
standing alone. As far as the law is concerned, the judge could disregard
the Guidelines and apply the same sentence (higher than the statutory
maximum or the bottom of the unenhanced Guidelines range) in the absence of
the special facts (say, gun brandishing) which, in the view of the
Sentencing Commission, would warrant a higher sentence within the
statutorily permissible range. Thus, our Sixth Amendment cases do not
forbid appellate court use of the presumption.”

David Finn

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Phone: (214) 538-6629
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