SCOTUS handed down today its decision in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines case, Rita v. United States, No. 06-5754, holding 6-3 (J’s Scalia, Thomas, and Souter dissenting) that appellate courts may presume that sentences are reasonable (and holding 8-1 as to the issue I don’t discuss below, that the District Court properly analyzed the relevant sentencing factors) .
The petitioner, Victor Rita, was convicted and sentenced for two false statements made to a grand jury about his purchase of machinegun parts. The trial judge’s sentence was 33 months, and the recommended Federal Guidelines sentence range from 18 U. S. C. §3553(a), had been 33 to 41 months based on petitioner’s physical condition, likely vulnerability in prison, and military experience. 4th Circuit affirmed, holding that a sentence imposed within the properly calculated Guidelines range is presumptively reasonable.
In a decision that will make it more difficult for appellants to challenge their sentences arrived at in consultation with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, SCOTUS now holds that courts of appeal may apply a non-binding presumption of reasonableness to district court sentences that are within the Guidelines.
Petitioner had argued that Circuits were split regarding the use of a presumption of reasonableness for within-Guidelines sentences. (No longer, obviously.) The Court noted that the presumption was not binding, and unlike a trial-related evidentiary presumption did not require one side shoulder the burden of persuasion or proof at risk of losing the case. Nor, the Court noted, did the presumption reflect “strong judicial deference” of the kind that leads appellate courts “to grant greater factfinding leeway to an expert agency than to a district judge.” The Commission’s task is merely to carry out the same task as the sentencing judge–the former “at wholesale,” and the judge “at retail,” the Court writes. Sentencing courts, applying the Guidelines, retain full authority in individual cases to depart from the Guidelines pursuant to the Guidelines’ language, or since the seminal Booker decision (which struck as unconstitutional the Guidelines language that made them “mandatory”), to simply apply a non-Guidelines sentence. Courts of Appeals then determine the reasonableness of the sentencing court’s imposed sentence. The Court noted that the presumption of reasonableness applies only at the appellate court level–not during sentencing itself. The sentencing court must go through the regular federal sentencing procedure, and must, per Booker, understand that the Guidelines are merely “advisory,” at best.
Petitioner Rita also objected that the pro-Guidelines “presumption of reasonableness” would increase the likelihood that courts of appeals would affirm sentences, increasing the likelihood that sentencing judges will impose Guidelines sentences. He argued that this presumption thus raises Sixth Amendment “concerns,” because many individual Guidelines apply higher sentences in the presence of special facts (e.g., brandishing a weapon), which facts the judge, not the jury, determined the existence of. The Court disagreed, nothing that nothing in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence forbade the sentencing court from taking into account factual matters which were not determined by a jury and which increased the sentence. Sixth Amendment law, rather, only forbids a judge from imposing a sentence “that the jury’s verdict alone does not allow.” In such a case, the jury will not have found all the facts that the law deems essential to the punishment, and the judge exceeds his sentencing authority.
Put simply, Sixth Amendment law forbids the judge from increasing the statutory maximum sentence based on the jury’s actual verdict. Again, the guidelines do not increase, and in fact in no way affect the statutory maximum sentence. They are, again, merely advisory, and in any case are always less than the statutory maximum sentence–hence do not violate Sixth Amendment precedent. In many cases, the maximum advisory Guidelines sentence will be less than the statutory maximum.
Finally, the Court concluded that Rita’s argument that a presumption of reasonableness would increase the likelihood of within-Guidelines sentences in no way was unconstitutional. Congress’ intent was to diminish unwarranted sentencing disparity and increase fairness through increased uniformity. Where the Guidelines were merely advisory, and the sentencing court retained full authority to either depart (within the Guidelines) or to entirely ignore (under Booker) the Guidelines, no Constitutional issues were raised by the possibility that sentences might become more uniform, over time.
These were the significant parts of the opinion, and they should neatly close the gap between Circuits about the Sentencing Guidelines’ reviewability on appeal.