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Sunday, February 25, 2024 | Back issues
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SCOTUS Passed on Ideal Case, Justices Complain

WASHINGTON (CN) - Though it claims to have been waiting years for the right case to address a constitutional issue, the Supreme Court rejected the ideal petition Tuesday, three justices complained.

The case in question involves three men whom a jury convicted of distributing small amounts of crack cocaine but were sentenced to lengthy terms based on a judge's finding that they engaged in a conspiracy.

Since jurors had acquitted them of the conspiracy charge, pertaining to an alleged gang membership, Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston and Antwaun Ball said their Sixth Amendment rights were violated.

A three-judge panel with the D.C. Circuit affirmed their sentences earlier this year, however, and the Supreme Court denied them a writ of certiorari Tuesday.

Three justices complained in dissent that the case warranted review.

"The Sixth Amendment, together with the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, 'requires that each element of a crime' be either admitted by the defendant, or 'proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt,'" Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "We have held that a substantively unreasonable penalty is illegal and must be set aside. It unavoidably follows that any fact necessary to prevent a sentence from being substantively unreasonable - thereby exposing the defendant to the longer sentence - is an element that must be either admitted by the defendant or found by the jury. It may not be found by a judge." (Emphasis in original.)

Scalia noted that the court could have made such a holding in 2007 with Rita v. United States, but that the issue was "left for another day" because the possibility of violations in Rita were hypothetical.

"Nonethe­less, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly taken our continuing silence to suggest that the Constitution does permit otherwise unreasonable sentences supported by judicial factfinding, so long as they are within the statutory range," Scalia wrote.

"This has gone on long enough," Scalia added. "The present petition presents the nonhypothetical case the court claimed to have been waiting for. And it is a particularly appealing case, because not only did no jury convict these defendants of the offense the sentencing judge thought them guilty of, but a jury acquitted them of that offense. Petitioners were convicted of distributing drugs, but acquitted of conspiring to distribute drugs. The sentencing judge found that petitioners had engaged in the conspiracy of which the jury acquitted them. The Guidelines, petitioners claim, recommend sentences of between 27 and 71 months for their distribution convictions. But in light of the conspir­acy finding, the court calculated much higher guidelines ranges, and sentenced Jones, Thurston, and Ball to 180, 194, and 225 months' imprisonment.

"On petitioners' appeal, the D.C. Circuit held that even if their sentences would have been substantively unreasona­ble but for judge-found facts, their Sixth Amendment rights were not violated. We should grant certiorari to put an end to the unbroken string of cases disregarding the Sixth Amendment - or to eliminate the Sixth Amendment difficulty by acknowledg­ing that all sentences below the statutory maximum are substantively reasonable."

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