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Balancing justice's scale

A Supreme Court ruling brings some clarity to a complicated federal sentencing system.

June 22, 2007

IN 2005, IN A COMPLICATED and confusing decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cast doubt on the validity of rules designed to prevent federal judges from imposing dramatically different sentences for the same crime. On Thursday, the justices sensibly backtracked, ruling 6 to 3 that appeals courts could presume that judges who sentence within the guidelines are acting reasonably.

It's not quite a case of all's well that ends well. Thanks to micromanagement by Congress, the federal sentencing system is still marred by inconsistencies and injustices -- such as the vastly harsher punishment meted out for possession of crack cocaine as opposed to the powdered variety. But Thursday's decision was a victory for fairness and predictability in punishment.

The court upheld a 33-month sentence for Victor Rita, a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran convicted of lying to a grand jury that was investigating a possibly illegal trade in machine guns. Rita's sentence was within guidelines devised by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a body created by Congress in 1984 and charged with devising sentences that, in mathematical fashion, would take account of the seriousness of the offense, the defendant's criminal history and other factors.

Then came Freddie Booker. Until the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in U.S. vs. Booker, the Sentencing Commission guidelines -- despite their name -- were mandatory, though a judge could depart from them if he could cite an aggravating or mitigating circumstance not anticipated by the commission. Following the guidelines, a federal judge had lengthened Booker's prison term for a drug conviction after determining that Booker had possessed more crack cocaine than had been alleged in his indictment.

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court overturned Booker's sentence because it violated the principle that, under the 6th Amendment, a judge may not increase punishment on the basis of conduct (other than past convictions) not proved to a jury. A different 5-4 majority in the Booker case held that the guidelines could remain on the books as an "advisory" resource for judges, but that appeals courts could still overturn "unreasonable" sentences. To put it charitably, the justices were sending a confusing message to lower courts.

Thursday's decision clarifies matters considerably, albeit to the disadvantage of Rita (and perhaps another convicted perjurer, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby). Rita had argued that his sentence, though it fell within the guidelines, was unreasonable because the judge didn't give due weight to his military service, his health problems and the fact that he might face reprisals in prison from inmates who knew he had worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But a federal appeals court ruled against Rita, saying that it presumed his sentence was reasonable because it fell within the guidelines. In affirming that decision, the Supreme Court hasn't ironed out every conceptual kink in this area of the law, which will continue to provide employment for lawyers and law professors. But the court has shored up an admirable effort to fit the punishment not only to the crime but also to the criminal. The guideline system isn't perfect, but the alternatives -- unfettered judicial discretion or rigid sentences set by Congress -- are far worse.

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