The U.S. Supreme Court opened its 215th year Monday with an extraordinary afternoon session that may spell the end to 20 years of sentencing guidelines imposed by Congress on federal judges.
Two extra hours of argument were added to the court's first day in response to confusion over a ruling last term that could affect more than 60,000 federal criminal cases heard each year.
In June, a narrow majority struck down sentencing guidelines in the state of Washington very similar to the federal system, and since then judges and prosecutors have complained that the complex federal strictures authorized in 1984 by Congress were, in effect, set aside as well.
Nothing in Monday's arguments indicated otherwise.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Blakely v. Washington, restated the court's complaint that guidelines often result in longer sentences based on issues never decided by a jury. Judges, not juries, consider facts such the amount of drugs involved in a crime that can add years to a sentence. That process violates the constitutional right to trial by jury, Scalia said
"The whole reason for jury trial is that we don't trust judges," said Scalia, who is supported by a disparate coalition that includes Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Their position, first expressed four years ago in Apprendi v. New Jersey, is that any fact that pushes punishment beyond a statutory maximum for a crime must be submitted to a jury.
Acting Solicitor General Paul D. Clement argued on behalf of the government that federal guidelines, which are set by the seven-member U.S. Sentencing Commission, are not the same as the Washington state guidelines. That position was made more difficult by the fact that the government had supported the Washington guidelines, arguing at the time that they were effectively the same.
The two cases argued simultaneously Monday involved convicted drug defendants from different states, Ralph Howard Booker of Michigan, and Ducan Fanfan of Maine. Booker received a stiffer sentence because of federal guidelines; Fanfan received a lesser sentence because of constitutional concerns.
Ten Commandments case
Also Monday, The three-year legal battle over ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and his Ten Commandments monument ended quietly when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Moore's final appeal.
The high court made no comment in declining Moore's request to reverse his expulsion last year by a state judicial ethics panel for refusing a federal judge's order to remove the 5,300-pound monument from the Alabama courthouse.
Moore said in a statement that it was hypocritical for the "liberal Supreme Court" to turn down his appeal even though the justices begin each session with the phrase, "God save the United States and this honorable court."
Opponents of the judge and his monument cheered the decision.
"Now, no court on this planet has ruled in Moore's favor," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups that sued in 2001 to have the monument removed. "It is truly time for him to understand that he has lost."