- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Federal sentencing guidelines that allow judges to impose harsher penalties on criminals without jury involvement should be upheld as constitutional to avoid mayhem in courthouses nationwide, a government attorney told the Supreme Court yesterday.

“This case concerns the constitutionality of 1,200 criminal sentences that take place in federal court every week,” acting Solicitor General Paul Clement said during an unusual two-hour argument.

Mr. Clement argued that criminal defendants’ constitutional rights were not breached because judges are constrained by a sentencing range set by the Congress under the 17-year-old federal guidelines.

Also yesterday, the Supreme Court refused to disturb a ruling that forces some California religious organizations to pay for workers’ contraceptive health insurance benefits.

Justices turned down an appeal from a Roman Catholic organization that wanted the court to weigh in on a growing trend of states requiring employers that offer prescription benefits to employees to cover birth-control pills.

The court’s announcement, on the first day of its nine-month term, keeps the justices out of a divisive church-state dispute;20 other states require employers that have prescription drug benefit plans to cover birth-control pills.

Yesterday’s hearing about federal sentencing guidelines comes after the high court stunned prosecutors, judges and public defenders by ruling in June that a similar sentencing system in Washington state gave judges too much leeway. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor criticized the ruling, saying it could wreak havoc in the courts.

“It looks like a number 10 earthquake to me,” she told a group of judges in a speech in July, adding that she was “disgusted in how we dealt with it.”

In recognition of the sweeping effect, the court put two appeals on a fast track, scheduling argument on the first day of its nine-month term.

At stake is a federal system set up by Congress in 1987 to make sentencing more fair. Judges have a range of potential sentences for each crime. Facts such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime or the amount of money involved in fraud affect the decision on prison time.

Since June, many judges have delayed sentencings or handed down lighter penalties because of confusion about the future.

The constitutional question for the court is whether defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is undermined when judges, instead of jurors, make critical decisions that can add to sentences. The appeals involve people sentenced on drug charges in Wisconsin and Maine.

A panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago threw out Freddie Booker’s sentence because a Wisconsin federal judge, acting alone, decided that more drugs were involved than the amount he had been convicted of possessing and that the man had obstructed justice.

The second case involves a Massachusetts man, Ducan Fanfan, who received a lighter prison sentence this summer for a conviction in Maine of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, because of the court’s ruling in the Washington state case.

In other action yesterday, the court:

• Rejected an appeal from ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who lost his job after defying a federal order to dismantle a Ten Commandments monument.

• Declined to decide whether random drug testing of firefighters is constitutionally justified by a city’s interest in promoting public safety.

• Turned away an appeal by Morris Communication Co., letting stand a lower ruling allowing the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) to restrict media outlets from posting or selling the real-time scores to Web site publishers — unless media outlets first purchase a licensing agreement from the PGA.

• Declined to consider the constitutionality of a local California ordinance that bans gun shows on government property such as fairgrounds.

• Decided not to resurrect a lawsuit filed by Vietnamese survivors of the My Lai massacre who sought compensation from commanders of the U.S. Army for abuses suffered during the 1968 attack.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide