The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that federal judges have been improperly adding time to criminals' sentences, a decision that puts in doubt longtime sentencing rules.
The court, on a 5-4 vote, said that its ruling last June that juries — not judges — should consider factors that can add years to defendants' prison sentences applies as well to the 17-year-old federal guideline system.
The justices refused to backtrack from a 5-4 decision that struck down a state sentencing system because it gave judges too much leeway in sentencing. But the high court stopped short of striking down the federal system.
Justice Stephen Breyer said the federal sentencing system is at least in part invalid because it forces judges to use the guidelines.
About 64,000 people are sentenced in federal courts each year, under a system that had been challenged as unconstitutional in a pair of cases at the Supreme Court.
The divided ruling Wednesday took longer than expected. Justices had put the issue on a fast track, scheduling special arguments on the first day of their nine-month term in October. Most court watchers expected a ruling before the holidays.
The federal guidelines are intended to make sure sentences do not vary widely from courtroom-to-courtroom. While juries consider guilt or innocence, judges make factual decisions that affect prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime, the number of victims in a fraud or whether a defendant committed perjury during trial.
The high court's vote to require more jury participation was 5-4 and included the same odd right-left combination of justices as those who had held sway in June. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are the court's most conservative members. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are in the liberal wing.
In a dissent, the other four justices wrote: "history does not support a `right to jury trial' in respect to sentencing facts."