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June 21, 2005 - Wall Street Journal (US)

High Court Declines To Clarify Sentencing-Guideline Decision

Justices Reject Petition Based On January Ruling; Not Chasing 'Squabbles'

By Jess Bravin, Staff Reporter

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Blakely News Archive

The Supreme Court turned down a petition to clarify its January decision that invalidated U.S. mandatory sentencing guidelines, leaving federal circuit courts to make their own rules on the matter. The high court's move means federal inmates in some states will continue to have an easier time challenging their sentences than prisoners in others.

The January decision in U.S. v. Booker limited federal judges in punishing convicted defendants for aggravating factors that weren't proven to a jury or admitted by the defendant. That threw into turmoil sentences for thousands of inmates, many of whom petitioned for earlier release dates. The Supreme Court didn't specify how its opinion should be applied, leaving it up to the federal circuit courts of appeal, which supervise different groups of states.

Four circuits ruled that any sentence longer than the maximum allowed by the facts found by the jury or undisputed by the defendant usually would require new sentences. One circuit decided that the trial courts would have to decide whether resentencing was needed.

Two other circuits concluded that inmates wouldn't receive lighter sentences unless they could show that they probably would have received a lighter sentence had the trial judge considered the federal sentencing guidelines to be advisory rather than mandatory.

Yesterday, the high court declined to hear the case of Vladimir Rodriguez, who was convicted of a federal drug dealing offense in Florida, within the jurisdiction of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which applies the harsher resentencing standard. After that court upheld his 109-month sentence, he appealed to the Supreme Court. The Justice Department supported the 11th Circuit's opinion, but asked the Supreme Court to hear the case to resolve the "deep and real" split among the appellate courts.

Four of the nine justices must agree before the high court will hear an appeal. In rejecting the Rodriguez case, the court made no decision on which interpretation is correct and could take up the question in a future appeal.

"The Supreme Court is saying it is not going to chase down the smaller squabbles in the wake of Blakely [a precursor case] and Booker, at least not yet," said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University. "What they have to think about is which are the most important issues and what case is the proper vehicle."

With Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding, the Supreme Court issued six opinions yesterday, but the term's most contentious decisions remain to be released, including cases involving display of the Ten Commandments on public property, the eminent-domain powers of local governments and the legality, challenged by the entertainment industry, of an Internet file-sharing system called Grokster. The court is next scheduled to issue rulings Thursday.

Gary Fields contributed to this article.

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