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September 9, 2004

"Statutory" analysis in Hammoud

Judge Wilkins majority's opinion for the Fourth Circuit in Hammoud (available here) puts great emphasis on the use of the phrase "statutory maximum" in Blakely and Apprendi, and he thus finds Blakely inapplicable to the federal guidelines because they are not statutes. In Wilkins words, "Blakely applies to the guidelines only if the Blakely Court redefined the term 'statutory maximum' to include any fact that increases a defendant's potential sentence." But, says Wilkins, "[o]n close examiniation of Blakely, we conclude that the Supreme Court simply applied — and did not modify — the rule articulated in Apprendi."

Though I suppose this is a plausible reading of the Blakely decision, on close examination it raises a lot of questions. First, of course, if the Fourth Circuit is reading Blakely properly, one must wonder why Justices O'Connor and Breyer made so much of a fuss in their Blakely dissents. Obviously, given the energy they spend lamenting the apparent demise of the federal guidelines, Justices O'Connor and Breyer obviously thought Blakely was modifying the rule in Apprendi.

Second, a close reading of Justice Scalia's opinion in Blakely reveals that after the key passage (at slip op. 7) where Justice Scalia (re)defines "statutory maximum," he does not once use that apparently critical phrase again in the final 10 pages of his opinion for the Court. Instead, Justice Scalia speaks of "what state law authorized" (slip op. 8), and not "what a state statute authorized"; he speaks of the "jury's traditional function of finding the facts essential to lawful imposition of the penalty" (slip op. 13), not of the jury's role "finding the facts essential to statutory imposition of the penalty;" he speaks of a defendant's "legal right to a lesser sentence" (slip op. 13), not of a "statutory right to a lesser sentence;" he speaks of "all facts legally essential to the punishment" (slip op. 17), not of "all facts statutorily essential to the punishment." In other words, if Justice Scalia and the others in the Blakely majority were trying not to modify the meaning of Apprendi, the Court's opinion should have been crafted much more carefully.

Finally, as suggested here and here, the Fourth Circuit's conclusion that Blakely "simply applied" Apprendi may have some significant retroactivity consequences. The opinion in many ways intimates that the holding in Blakely was dictated by Apprendi (see p. 66: "in Blakely the Court simply applied the rule of Apprendi to a new set of facts "). But as these recent North Carolina rulings document, at least one Fourth Circuit state has a statutory sentencing guideline system just like the one declared unconstitutional in Blakely. After Hammoud, do all North Carolina prisoners who received enhancements and had not-yet final convictions in June 2000 (when Apprendi was decided) now have strong claims for Blakely relief in the federal courts (even if the state courts won't grant such relief)?

September 9, 2004 at 02:36 AM | Permalink

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