Thursday, July 19, 2012

Effective review of Southern Union's impact and potential import

For various understandable reasons, the Supreme Court significant Sixth Amendment ruling in Southern Union has not gotten all that much attention.  But this effective Indiana Lawyer article, headlined "US Supreme Court: Criminal fines require jury finding," provides a nice reminder of the significance of the ruling. Here are excerpts from this piece:

An end-of-term U.S. Supreme Court decision did far more than reduce a penalty in a federal criminal environmental judgment from $18 million to $50,000. It created a new reality for how the government will have to pursue such prosecutions in the future, experts say.

A rare coalition of conservative and liberal justices ruled 6-3 in Southern Union Co. v. United States, 11–94, that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires a jury to determine facts to support a sentence imposed after a guilty verdict....

“This is definitely a win for the defendants,” [Indiana University law professor Ryan] Scott told the Indiana Lawyer. “That said, the history of Apprendi is one of the Supreme Court recognizing more and more expansive jury rights and the government responding with great resilience.”

In essence, experts said, juries will have to determine factors such as lengths of violations for sentences involving fines on a “per day/per violation” basis, or losses and potential penalties in federal fraud cases. A simple guilty verdict such as that in Southern Union no longer is sufficient to allow a judge to use his or her discretion in levying criminal fines....

Southern Union seems to suggest that Apprendi may apply to any penalties inflicted by the government for the commission of offenses.... Also left for future consideration: “When does an offense rise beyond the level of ‘non-petty’ and become substantial enough to invoke the Apprendi rule?”

Scott also sees more Apprendi questions arising. The jury trial right could be a matter for the courts to decide in cases involving restitution determinations and in matters where asset forfeiture is ordered, he said.

July 19, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A (too) quick first take on Southern Union and Hill/Dorsey

I am so very pleased and grateful the Supreme Court finally handed down today opinions in two of the three big sentencing cases pending this term: we got Southern Union concerning Apprendi's applicability to fines (basic here), and Hill and Dorsey concerning application of the new crack FSA sentencing provisions to pipeline cases (basics here).  We still await Jackson and Miller, the juve LWOP Eighth Amendment cases (which, I would guess, will be handed down on Monday.)  Even before reading them very closely, I wanted to share a few quick reactions to today's notable sentencing rulings:

1.  In both cases, federal defendants prevailed and were able to get a SCOTUS reversal of pro-prosecution rulings issued by federal circuit courts.  This reality reinforces, yet again, my belief that the US Supreme Court is a much more pro-defendant appellate tribunal on sentencing issues than many (most? all?) other appellate courts in the nation.  (This means, inter alia, sentencing defendants unhappy with an appellate outcome in a lower court ought always seriously consider appealing to SCOTUS.)

2.  In both cases, oral argument proved to be a pretty good predictor of where the Justices were leaning, and those Justices with a history of engagement with sentencing issues were tasked with writing opinions for their colleagues.  We got two opinions from Justice Breyer (a majority and a lead dissent), and an opinion from Justice Sotomayor (a majority) and Justice Scalia (a dissent).  I was a bit surprised that Justice Alito did not write in either of these cases, though his vote in both was pro-prosecution and I suspect he has a (pro-prosecution) opinion coming in the juve LWOP cases.

3.  Because of the huge debates and controversy over crack sentencing rules, and because hundreds of crack cases are sentenced in federal courts every month, the Hill and Dorsey cases will likely get much more attention and have more short-term impact in the days and months ahead.  But Southern Union is the "bigger" decision because it shows (a) that there are now six Justices (including three of the four newer ones) who are happy to keep extending the Apprendi/Blakely rule and (b) that the Ice ruling cutting back on the Sixth Amendment's reach is likely to end up as an outlier in this jurisprudence.

4.  In light of the 6-3 outcome Southern Union, I see strong reasons for the defense bar to keep pushing hard to get the Justices to take up a case that enables reconsideration of the Almendarez-Torres exception (covering prior convictions) and the Harris exceptions (convering mandatory minimums) to the Apprendi rule.  Because Chief Justice Roberts is now a long-term citizen in Apprendi-land and because he has shown in other settings a willingness to engineer the overturning of precedents he finds misguided, the time may now be really ripe to find strong case(s) through which to seek reversal of these (misguided?) Apprendi exceptions.

June 21, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

In 6-3 opinion, SCOTUS finds that Apprendi rule applies to criminal fines

As I hoped and expected, today we finally got one of the big final sentencing cases from the Supreme Court.  Specifically, as per the early SCOTUSblog report, we have this Apprendi sighting:

Justice Sotomayor has opinion. The rule of Apprendi v. NJ applies to the imposition of criminal fines. The First Circuit is reversed. The vote is 6-3. Justice Breyer dissents, joined by Kennedy and Alito.

The full opinion is now available at this link and I am certain I wil have much to say about the ruling and its import in the hours to come.

UPDATE:  A very quick scan of the opinions (in which the dissent by Justice Breyer is nearly twice as long as the opinion for the Court) suggests that three of the four newer Justices are now happy citizens in Apprendi-land with Justice Alito the only newby on the outside complaining about this magical land's continued growth.

June 21, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, June 04, 2012

Another week of SCOTUS waiting for sentencing fans

I had thought there was a reasonable possibility that the Supreme Court sometime this week might hand down one of the big sentencing cases still pending: Southern Union (Apprendi's application to fines); Jackson and Miller (mandatory LWOP for young juve murderers); Dorsey and Hill (the FSA's application to pipeline cases).  But, as detailed via this post at How Appealing, the Justices did not issue opinions in any of these cases this morning.  They Justices did grant cert and hand down one opinion on police practice issues, and Lyle Denniston reports here at SCOTUSblog that probably the most notable criminal justice decision was a cert denied in two high-profile federal convictions flowing from campaign donations in Alabama. 

According to the folks at SCOTUSblog, it appear that the Court will not hand down opinions again until next Monday.  So, it's another week of waiting for these sentencing rulings.  Fortunately, absent some dramatic or unexpected development (such as a order for reagument), I think we can reasonably expect to see opinions in all of these cases within the next three weeks.

Anyone yet eager to make predictions on the timing, outcomes, vote counts or opinion writers in these big sentencing cases.  At this moments I am inclined to guess we will get Southern Union next week, the juve LWOP cases the week of June 18, and the FSA pipeline cases the week of June 25.  In addition, I think the defendants are likely to previal in these cases by votes of 7-2, 5-4, and 6-3, with Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Sotomayor as principal opinion writers. 

But who really knows with this Court these days!?!?

June 4, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Seeking early predictions on Southern Union (and Apprendi's future)

This coming Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the biggest Apprendicase to come down the pike in a few years.  SCOTUSblog has this effective new argument preview posted on the case, and here is how it begins:

On Monday, March 19, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Southern Union Co. v. United States, a case that could bring about profound changes in the way courts impose criminal fines, which serve as the principal sanction for organizations, including corporations.  The Court will have to determine whether fines are subject to the principle announced in Apprendi v. New Jersey: “Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”  To date, the Court has applied this principle only to the death penalty (Ring v. Arizona) and to sentencing schemes limiting years of incarceration a judge may impose in the absence of specific factual findings (Blakely v. Washington, United States v. Booker, Cunningham v. California, and Oregon v. Ice).

The issue arises in the context of an environmental criminal statute authorizing a prison term and a fine “per day” of violation.  The jury was not asked to determine the number of violation days; it returned a general verdict of guilty.  However, the court imposed a sentence based on the premise that the violation had occurred for more than one day.  If the Supreme Court finds that the trial court engaged in judicial fact finding -- and if Apprendi applies to fines -- the sentence violates due process and the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial.

The decision in this case could turn on the Court’s assessment of the judicial role in imposing fines at the time of the Founders and whether fines -- the sanction for corporate “persons” -- are a fundamentally different punishment from incarceration.  Considerations concerning the administration of justice may come into play.  Finally, the opinion should clarify the significance of Oregon v. Ice, the Court’s most recent relevant precedent.

Another Southern Union preview can be found in this Greenwire piece, which includes this discussion of some underlying facts:

Seizing on the Apprendi ruling, Southern Union claims that only a jury can decide on the number of days the company was in violation of RCRA. Although a jury deliberated on the question of Southern Union's guilt, it was U.S. District Judge William Smith of the District of Rhode Island who imposed a total of $18 million in fines and fees based in part on how many days the mercury was illegally stored.

Under RCRA, the company faced a criminal penalty of up to $50,000 a day. The government had asserted in the indictment that the company was in violation for 762 days, meaning there was a maximum fine of $38.1 million.

Southern Union had opted to go to trial so it could argue that the mercury had not been abandoned and was therefore not a waste product.  The company maintained it had stored the mercury carefully and that it would eventually be recycled. The mercury only became a problem when vandals broke into the facility and spilled some of the substance, which led to an expensive remediation process.

After considering the questions concerning the Apprendi ruling, Judge Smith imposed a $6 million fine and a $12 million community service fee. Smith concluded that the jury had found the company to be in violation for the entire period, which gave him the leeway to impose the penalty.

Southern Union had no luck when it appealed to the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In December 2010, the court -- going further than Smith -- held Apprendi didn't apply to financial penalties.  It based its ruling in part on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, Oregon v. Ice, in which the high court, again split 5-4, said that Apprendi was not intended to expand the jury's role beyond what it has done in the past.

Southern Union and its supporters -- which include the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who filed a joint amicus brief -- say the appeals court is out of sync with other courts around the country that have concluded that criminal penalties are covered by Apprendi....

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, representing the Obama administration, insisted in his brief that the Supreme Court made clear in the 2009 Iceruling that judges must consider the historical role of the jury in deciding how to draw a line between the role of judges and juries. "This court has long recognized that criminal fines, even significant ones, raise fundamentally different concerns from terms of incarceration or the death penalty," Verrilli said.

The former is a "deprivation of property," while the latter is a "deprivation of liberty or life," he said.  Verrilli delved into English common law in making the case that judges traditionally had "more discretion with respect to fines than they did in imposing terms of imprisonment or death."...

Whatever the court rules, it is not likely to directly affect a large number of cases. There are 15 federal statutes that impose fines based on the number of days of a violation, although a number of them concern violations of environmental regulations, including Clean Water Act permitting. "It's a narrow category of cases," said criminal law expert Ryan Scott, an associate professor at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law....

Supreme Court watchers are unsure how the court will rule, in large part because there are four serving justices who were not on the court when Apprendiwas decided and two -- Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- have been appointed since Ice was decided.  As Scott put it, it is an "unusually difficult one to guess."

I share Professor Scott's view that predicting an outcome, or even the votes of  particular justices, in Southern Union is unusually difficult.  I can make a plausible prediction that Southern Union could possibly win 9-0 because I doubt that the Court's still-remaining Apprendi dissenters (Justices Breyer and Kennedy) will be distinctly eager to prevent Apprendi's extension into this arena.  And yet, in Ice, a one-time (though fickle) Apprendi supporter, Justice Ginsburg, wrote a broad opinion for the Court limiting Apprendi's reach and suggesting that she (as well as Justice Alito, who was another key swing vote in Ice) may be increasingly concerning about what could happen if Apprendi rights were extended into new sentencing settings.  If Justice Ginsburg remains very concerned about the expanding the borders of Apprendi-land, I could imagine her (perhaps with the help of the Apprendi-haters) seeking to persuade some of the new Justices to draw another line in the jurisprudential sand here.

As my post title suggests, I am very eager to hear from readers concerning their perspectives on the Southern Union case in particular and on Apprendi jurisprudence more generally now that it is a full dozen years since the Sixth Amendment started playing a big role in sentencing law and policy.

Some recent related posts:

March 15, 2012 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Friday, March 09, 2012

How might newer Justices take on Apprendi jurisprudence in Southern Union?

A helpful e-mail from a reader reminded me that I have not blogged enough about the exciting Apprendi doctrine case that the Supreme Court will hear upon its return to oral argument action on March 19. The question presented in Southern Union v. US (SCOTUSblog coverage here) is simple enough: "Whether the Fifth and Sixth Amendment principles that this Court established in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and its progeny, apply to the imposition of criminal fines."  What is not simple is figuring out what the newer SCOTUS justices, particularly Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, think about the Supreme Court's somewhat tortured Apprendi jurisprudence and its application in this setting.

Notably, Chief Justice Roberts has been a consistent vote with those Justices inclined to expand Apprendirights (of which only Scalia and Thomas are still on the Court), as evidenced most clearly by his votes in Cunningham (with the majority) and Ice(with the dissent).  Meanwhile, Justice Alito has been a consistent vote with those inclined to limit Apprendi rights, as evidenced most clearly by his votes in Cunningham (with the dissent) and Ice(with the majority).  Justice Breyer and Kennedy have been consistent Apprendi haters, but maybe the doctrine will bother them less in this context.  And who knows what to expect of Justice Ginsburg in this arena in the wake of Booker and Ice.

Southern Union will present the first crisp opportunity for the two newest Justices to indicate how they view ApprendiFifth and Sixth Amendment rules.  If they both join the Roberts, Scalia, Thomas troika in Apprendi-land, Southern Union could possibly have profound long-term implications for all sorts of (financial and other) punishments beyond fines.

March 9, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Top-side brief in Southern Union explains why Sixth Amendment Apprendi rule applies to fines

All Apprendi/Blakely fans (and, for that matter, all Apprendi/Blakely haters) will want to check out this SCOTUS merits brief from the petitioner in Southern Union v. US, which was filed last week.  Here is the start of the brief's statement of the case

This case raises the question whether the principle that this Court recognized and applied to sentences of incarceration in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and its progeny, applies equally to the imposition of criminal fines.  At the outset, the Court might wonder what the argument could be that the Apprendi principle does not apply to criminal fines, given that this Court’s explicit holding in Apprendi was that any fact that increases the “penalty” for a crime must be submitted to the jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and criminal fines are unquestionably “penalties.”  Indeed, prior to the decision below, federal and state courts uniformly held (or assumed) that Apprendi applies to the imposition of criminal fines.  Even the United States agreed that the Apprendi principle applies to fines.

The decision below is the first to hold otherwise.  It did so based on the court of appeals’ view that this Court’s opinion in Oregon v. Ice, 555 U.S. 160 (2009), announced a whole new methodology that fundamentally narrowed the Apprendi doctrine and also suggested that a court can use non-jury fact-finding to impose a fine that exceeds the maximum fine set by the legislature, which is what happened in this case.  As shown below, this reading of Ice, a case which did not involve a criminal fine, is fundamentally flawed and ignores the fact that Ice was an exceedingly narrow ruling.  In particular, the court of appeals’ historical understanding was at a minimum incomplete, and in all events did not support its conclusion that fines are outside the scope of Apprendi.

This Court should reverse the court of appeals’ holding because it would deprive criminal defendants of their fundamental jury trial rights in cases involving fines, and should vacate the fine imposed in this case (which was 360 times greater than that authorized by the jury’s verdict).

Many hard-core Apprendi/Blakely fans were justifiably puzzled by Ice, and this new case presents the Court with its first opportunity to explain if and how Ice was meant to recast the Apprendi/Blakely Sixth Amendment rules.  Also, Southern Union will present the first crisp opportunity for the two newest Justices to indicate how they view Apprendi/Blakely Sixth Amendment rules, which could of course have profound long-term implications for all sorts of punishments beyond fines.

January 17, 2012 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sixth and Eighth Amendment cases as notable amuse-bouche for SCOTUS health care litigation

As reported here at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court has released its oral arguments calendars for its February and March sittings. Not surprisingly, the legal media is mostly talking about the court's decision to set arguments on the new federal health care law for all its sessions in the week of March 26.   And, also not surprisingly, I find interesting the fact that the Court has scheduled for oral argument its Sixth Amendment Apprendi fines case (Southern Union Co.) and its two Eighth Amendment juve LWOP cases (Miller and Jackson) in the week just prior to the health care litigation.

As the title to this post suggests, I thin these constitutional criminal law and procedure cases will provide a notable tingler for the constitutional taste buds to prepare the Justices for the health care fight to follow. In Southern Union Co., the federal government will be urging the Justices not to read the Constitution to place any more procedural burdens on its efforts to impose criminal fines, and in Miller and Jackson, two states will be urging the Justices not to read the Constitution to place any more substantive limits on what punishments they can impose on juveniles convicted of murder. In these cases, some of the more conservative Justices will surely be sympathetic to assertions that an unelected judiciary should not find new constitutional problems with duly enacted criminal laws.

But, of course, the script will be (somewhat) flipped the following week with the health care litigation. The feds, of course, will still be defending federal law against constitutional attack. But now state will be urging an unelected judiciary should to find constitutional problems with duly enacted civil laws. And, so the thinking goes, now the more conservative Justices seem likely to be sympathetic to assertions that these duly enacted laws go to far.

December 20, 2011 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lots of details on the new SCOTUS sentencing cases

Via SCOTUSblog at this post, I can provide here more information and links to key documents in the exciting new sentencing cases taken up by the Supreme Court this morning:

[T]he Court had been holding one of today’s granted petitions, Hill v. United States, to be considered alongside several other petitions that raise the same issue:  whether the Fair Sentencing Act (which reduced the crack-powder sentencing differential) applies in an initial sentencing proceeding that takes place on or after the statute’s effective date if the offense occurred before that date.... Hill has been consolidated with Dorsey v. United States (case page forthcoming), for a total of one hour of argument....

Hill v. United States (Granted)

Docket: 11-5721
Issue(s): Whether the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 applies in an initial sentencing proceeding that takes place on or after the statute’s effective date if the offense occurred before that date.

Certiorari stage documents:

 

Southern Union Company v. United States (Granted)

Docket: 11-94
Issue(s): Whether the Fifth and Sixth Amendment principles that this Court established in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and its progeny, apply to the imposition of criminal fines.

Certiorari stage documents:

Recent related posts on the new SCOTUS cases:

November 28, 2011 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

SCOTUS to decide whether Apprendi applies to criminal fines via Southern Union

Sentencing fans have their SCOTUS cups running over this morning: in addition to the cert grants on a pair of cases dealing with the application of the statutory crack sentences in Dorsey and Hill (basics here), the Supreme Court also grant cert on a long-simmering Apprendi issue: namely whether standard of proof jury trial rights set forth in Apprendi and its progeny apply to the imposition of criminal fines.   This issue is to be reviewed in Southern Union Company v. United States, No. 11-94.  Wowsa!

With the juve LWOP homicide cases of Jackson and Miller to give more content to the Eighth Amendment, and now this Southern Union case to further unpack the meaning and reach of Apprendi and Blakely, the current SCOTUS Term is shaping up to be huge for sentencing fans.  Can you tell I am already giddy with anticipation?

P.S.: On the Sixth Amendment front, the Supreme Court also granted cert today on a case dealing with the application of harmless error review for the admission of hearsay statements in a case named Vasquez v. US.  I am not sure Vasquez has any likely sentencing bite, but I am sure the Justices seem interested in resolving a significant number of criminal justice issues this Term.)

November 28, 2011 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Harris test case?: Seventh Circuit affirms extraordinary sentencing factor enhancement

Among the many "quirks" in the modern Apprendi/Blakely Sixth Amendment jurisprudence from the Supreme Court is the Harris mandatory minimum exception to the rule requiring jury findings of important sentence-enhancing facts. This "quirk" in on full display in the Seventh Circuit's fascinating ruling today in US v. Krieger, No. 09-1333 (7th Cir. Dec. 7, 2010) (available here), in which a panel affirms a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence based on judicial fact-finding about the defendant's drug crime resulting in a friend's death.

The panel decision in Krieger has too many interesting and notable facets to summarize in one post.  So I will just quote from one part of the opinion which spotlights why this is a possible test case for the Supreme Court to perhaps reconsider the logic and persistence of Harris:

Krieger’s pre-sentencing report set forth a recommended sentencing range of ten to sixteen months. The government filed objections, arguing that the court should find that Curry’s death resulted from Krieger’s distribution of fentanyl, thus triggering a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C)....

On January 16, 2009, the district court issued its order, finding, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the fentanyl supplied by Krieger resulted in the death of Curry....  In view of the conflicting evidence as to the cause of Curry’s death, the court concluded that the government would not have been able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Krieger’s distribution of fentanyl was the cause of Curry’s death, had Krieger been charged with that offense.  The court was persuaded, however, that a preponderance of the evidence established fentanyl as the cause of Curry’s death, and concluded that “the Government has established that it is more probable than not that Ms. Krieger’s distribution of fentanyl to Ms. Curry resulted in Ms. Curry’s death.” (R. at 154, p.8).

Once the court made the finding, by a preponderance of the evidence, that death resulted, it concluded that it was obligated to impose the mandatory statutory minimum under § 841(b)(1)(C) “if death results” — twenty years....

The outcome in this case highlights the critical nature of the distinction between sentencing factors and elements.  In this case, without death resulting, the maximum penalty for distributing small amounts of fentanyl would have been twenty years, with no minimum penalty. 21 U.S.C. § 841 (b)(1)(C) (“In the case of a controlled substance in schedule I or II . . . such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than 20 years.”).  In cases where death results from the distribution, the sentence increases to a minimum of twenty years and a maximum of life in prison. Id.  Once a court makes a finding that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence, it has no choice but to impose that sentence.

December 8, 2010 in Blakely in Appellate Courts, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Monday, October 18, 2010

En banc Second Circuit rejects Apprendi challenge to NY persistent felony statute

It has been quite some time since Sixth Amendment fans have had a big, split Apprendi/Blakely opinion to chew on.  Today the Second Circuit has filled the void with a big, split en banc ruling in Portalatin v. Graham, 07-1599 (2d Cir. Oct. 18, 2010) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion (per Judge Wesley) gets started:

Petitioners Carlos Portalatin, William Phillips, and Vance Morris were separately convicted in state court and received sentences pursuant to New York’s persistent felony offender statute, N.Y. Penal Law § 70.10.  Each petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the New York courts engaged in an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law in affirming their sentences.  Specifically, they argue that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to an impartial jury, as construed by the Supreme Court in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) and its progeny, proscribes the long-used sentencing procedure in New York that results in judicially enhanced sentences for certain recidivist offenders.

In the case of petitioner Portalatin, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York agreed, issuing a writ of habeas corpus from which the State now appeals. See Portalatin v. Graham, 478 F. Supp. 2d 385, 386 (E.D.N.Y. 2007) (Gleeson, J.). In the cases of petitioners Phillips and Morris, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York separately declined to issue such writs. See Phillips v. Artus, No. 05 Civ. 7974, 2006 WL 1867386, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 30, 2006) (Crotty, J.); Morris v. Artus, No. 06 Civ. 4095, 2007 WL 2200699, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 30, 2007) (Sweet, J.). Petitioners appealed.

In a consolidated appeal, a panel of this Court concluded that New York’s persistent felony offender sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment, and that the New York courts unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court precedent in holding otherwise, but remanded the matters to the district court for consideration of whether those errors were harmless. See Besser v. Walsh, 601 F.3d 163, 189 (2d Cir. 2010).

A majority of judges in active service then called for this rehearing en banc. The Court now holds that the state courts did not engage in an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent in affirming the convictions. Accordingly, the grant of the writ to Portalatin is reversed, and the denials of the writ to Phillips and Morris are affirmed.

Here is a key passage from the start of Judge Winter's dissent:

My colleagues rely heavily upon AEDPA deference but identify only one constitutional argument dispositive of the claims of all petitioners -- regarding the applicable maximum sentences for Apprendi purposes -- and that one has been specifically rejected by the Supreme Court in Cunningham v. California, 549 U.S. 270 (2009) and Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004).  Except for that discussion, my colleagues’ opinion never responds directly to petitioners’ claims and proffers no other identifiable constitutional theory to which AEDPA deference can be given.

We can all be virtually certain that one or more of the losing NY defendants in this case will appeal to the US Supreme Court. Less clear is whether the current Justices are interested in another round of Apprendi/Blakely squabbling. I would not be suprised if new Justices Alito and Sotomayor have an interest in sharing their perspectives on the reach of Apprendi/Blakely, but I also would not be surprised if most of the other Justices are content to take a pass.

October 18, 2010 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Blakely in the States, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, June 14, 2010

SCOTUS confirmation that the prior conviction excpetion to Apprendi is here to stay

Sentencing and clemency guru Margaret Colgate Love wrote me today to suggest that the biggest sentencing news coming from all today's SCOTUS action (basics here) is to be found in the immigraion case Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder (available here).  In Carachuri-Rosendo, the Justices ruled that "that second or subsequent simple possession offenses are not aggravated felonies [requiring deportation] under §1101(a)(43) when, as in this case, the state conviction is not based on the fact of a prior conviction." And here is what Margaret Colgate Love had to say about why this is a notable ruling for sentencing fans:

Biggest news this morning on sentencing front is in Carachuri-Rosendo [because the] Court unanimously backs away from constitutionalizing recidivist sentencing. It reaffirms Almendarez-Torres, both on 5th and 6th A grounds and nobody says a word in defense of overruling it. Thomas concurred apparently just to let us know rather gracefully, by not mentioning A-T, that he has given up hope of Court overruling it.  (It seems that all the hype in circuits about A-T being on life support was just that.)

The Court also said that notice of intention to charge priors under 851 was not constitutionally compelled. Stevens was all business, no prose more purple than "counterintuitive and unorthodox." Though 851 has no constitutional underpinning, it is a way to limit recidivist enhancements in drug cases.  As to other types of enhancements, I thought his note 12 was very significant for ACCA and other gun recidivist enhancements, in requiring that prior must appear as part of the judgment or formal charging document (a fairly substantial expansion/clarification of Shepard).

June 14, 2010 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is anyone still preserving Apprendi/Blakely challenges to judge-determined restitution awards?

Thanks to the Supreme Court deciding only civil cases this week, I have finally found time to read the argument transcript from last week's SCOTUS oral argument in Dolan v. US (which is available at this link).  There are lots of interested aspect of the Dolan transcript ranging from frequent discussion of what is a final sentence to the potential impact of the 3553(a)'s requirement that district judges consider the need for restitution. 

But one particular line from the start of one of Justice Scalia's questions to the Government prompts my question in the title of this post.  Specifically, on page 31 of the Dolan transcript, Justice Scalia starts a line of questioning by saying "I think it's bad enough to have the issue of whether this victim suffered $100,000 damages decided by the judge...."  In addition, on pages 51-52 of the Dolan transcript Justice Scalia suggest with another line of questions that he is troubled by the fact that "it's the judge who finds that the victim suffered so much money" and that the judge does not use a beyond a reasonable doubt standard when making this finding.

In other words, it appears that Justice Scalia remains quite concerned that the constitutional requirements imposed on sentencing determinations in Apprendi and Blakely are not being applied with respect to the fact-finding involved in the setting of criminal restitution awards.  Thus, despite the fact that every circuit has rejected arguments to apply Apprendi and Blakely to restitution awards, there is at least one Justice (and perhaps there are more) who might be eager to give some new life to these kinds of claims.

I fear that few defendants even try to preserve Apprendi/Blakelychallenges to judge-determined restitution awards since these claims never got any real traction in lower courts after Blakely.  But the Dolan transcript suggests that perhaps these claims ought still be preserved and pressed all the way up to the Justices.

April 28, 2010 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oral argument transcript finally available for in O'Brien/Burgess case

I am pleased to finally be able to report that the Supreme Court now has posted here the transcript for Tuesday morning's oral argument in United States v. O'Brien and Burgess, the combined cases concerning the application of the machine-gun mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).  I have heard from multiple source that Blakely fans will want to give this a close read, and that's my plan as I jump on a plane this afternoon to head to Miami (more on that later).  I hope to have comments on the argument in a future post, but I hope readers do not wait for me to opine on this argument's merits (or demerits).

Some recent related posts:

February 24, 2010 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, February 22, 2010

Might the Harris limit on Apprendi be questioned in O'Brien/Burgess argument?

As detailed in this post at SCOTUSblog, on Tuesday morning the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in United States v. O'Brien and Burgess, a combined pair of cases concerning the application of the machine-gun mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).  As regular readers may recall from posts here and here back when cert was granted in these cases, the Apprendi Sixth Amendment line of cases (and especially the Harris mandatory minimum exception) may be in play and at issue in these case.

After reviewing the merits briefs in O'Brien and Burgess (which are available here thanks to the ABA), my gut tells me that the Justices will be drawn to ruling for the defendants on statutory interpretation grounds, which will allow the Court to dodge all the tough constitutional questions that a ruling for the government could present.  But my gut instinct about a lot of SCOTUS sentencing issues is rarely spot-on, and I suspect that the validity of Harris might come up during Tuesday's oral argument even if the majority of Justices are inclined to resolve O'Brien and Burgess on statutory interpretation grounds.

For those eager to gear up for the O'Brien and Burgess argument by giving thought to the possibility of overruling the Harris mandatory minimum exception to the Apprendi Sixth Amendment rule, I recommend the amicus brief filed by NYU Center for the Administration of Criminal Law (with which I helped a bit). That brief makes a serious argument for now doing away with Harris mandatory minimum exception to the application of the Apprendi doctrine.

February 22, 2010 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, October 19, 2009

Are Apprendi and Blakely Justice Stevens' most favorite opinions?

This morning's USA Today includes this lovely front-page articleby Joan Biskupic about Justice Stevens. The piece, which is headlined "Supreme Court's Stevens keeps cards close to robe; Long-serving justice, 89, a force behind the scenes," is a must-read for all SCOTUS fans.  But sentencing fans might take particular note of this line reporting on what Justice Stevens' said during Biskupic's recent interview:

On opinions he finds noteworthy, he cited cases in which he crafted a narrow majority to enhance the role of juries in criminal sentencing.

Of course, the cases referenced here have to be his own 2000 Apprendi decision and the 2004 Blakely decision (which was authored by Justice Scalia, of course).  

The fact that Justice Stevens would make special mention of Apprendi and Blakely in this recent interview leads me to two questions, one backward looking and one forward looking: (1) if Justice Stevens remains proud of his work in Apprendi andBlakely, just why did he end up providing the key fifth vote to limit the reach of this jurisprudence in last Term's Ice case?, and (2) in light of his apparent affinity for Apprendi and Blakely, might Justice Stevens work extra hard this Term (which likely will be his final Term) to reverse the Harris mandatory minimum exception to Apprendi?

Some related recent posts:

October 19, 2009 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, October 02, 2009

Should the ALI and other academics actively urge SCOTUS to reverse Harris in O'Brien?

I keep thinking about the suggestion by Professor Kevin Reitz, noted in this post, that the Harris mandatory minimum limit on the Apprendi Sixth Amendment rule might be subject to reversal in O'Brien.  And the more I think, the more I get drawn to the idea that everyone who views Harris as a serious impediment to sound modern sentencing reforms ought to be actively urging Harris to be overruled in O'Brien.  I say this because I genuinely believe that, if lots of thoughtful folks make a strong case that Harris is now harmful in light of the subsequent Blakely and Booker jurisprudence, few Justices may be eager to defend and uphold Harris

Let me unpack this instinct by first highlighting that Justice Stevens and Justice Thomas seem likely and eager to embrace calls to overrule Harris.  Both Justices have expressed interest in getting rid of undue limits on the Apprendi doctrine and neither seems too moved by stare decisis concerns in this setting.  The fact that both Justices Stevens and Thomas may be deeply interested in getting rid of Harris seems quite significant (and Justice Ginsburg has almost always voted with Justice Stevens in this line of cases).

Also significant, especially for the vote of Justice Breyer (and maybe also for Justice Kennedy), is that the subsequent Blakely and Booker rulings largely brought down what Harris sought to preserve: binding guideline systems based on judicial fact-finding.  After Blakely and Booker, the virtues of Harris are harder to see, while the vices remain on display.

In addition, the Recuenco decision declares Apprendi-Blakely errors subject to harmless error analysis.  Recuenco can and should greatly reduce the fear that overruling Harris would have all sorts of negative consequences: in the vast majority of old cases, any "O'Brien error" in the application of a mandatory minimum sentence would likely be found to be harmless.

Finally, I think all the new Justices could be moved by arguments that preserving Harris is bad for modern sentencing reform as long as Apprendi and Blakely and Booker all remain good law.  All the new Justices likely have a sense of the ugliness of modern Sixth Amendment jurisprudence and none have played a direct role in creating it.  Consequently, they might readily be drawn to suggestions that the Court would be helpful and respectful to states and officials involved in sentencing reforms if they now did away with the Harris exception to Apprendi.

Ironically, these thoughts all take me back to Professor Kevin Reitz, who is the reporter on the ALI's on-going revision of the sentencing provisions of the Model Penal Code.  If he could get the ALI and others to make the case that no sentencing code can be truly model with Harris still on the books, there may be even more than five votes to overrule Harris in O'Brien

Some related recent posts:

October 2, 2009 in Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Might Apprendi be at risk with O'Brien cert grant?

In this post concerning the Supreme Court's grant of cert this week in US v. O'Brien, I reprinted the thoughtful notion by Kevin Reitz that the Harris mandatory minimum limit on the Apprendi might be subject to reversal in O'Brien.  But one commentor in that thread suggested that maybe the spirit might be moving the other way:

[T]he question presented in O'Brienis extremely broad.  So broad, I fear, that it could conceivably accommodate the overruling of Apprendi itself -- accommodate eliminating the constitutional distinction between elements and sentencing factors.

I have yet to see anyone raise this possibility: that Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito voted to hear O'Brienbecause they are hoping to get Sotomayor on board the plane out of Apprendi-land.

This is somewhat fanciful and paranoid speculation, to be sure. But let's not forget Citizens United. I think overruling Apprendi is no less likely an outcome than overruling Harris.

Wow, that is some wild fanciful and paranoid speculation, especially given that Chief Justice Roberts seem to have some affinity for Apprendi-land as evidenced by his votes in Cunningham and Ice.  In addition, I would be very surprised to see the Solicitor General or anyone else actively advocate overruling Apprendi anytime soon.  Moreover, Justice Stevens has said that he would like to see Harris overruled, and so I think he will likely be working harder this (last?) term to extend Apprendi and will not take kindly to any move to undo his efforts there.

That all said, all these comments usefully highlight is the unsteady and uncertain status of all aspects of the entire Apprendi-Blakely-Booker jurisprudence, and O'Brien may thus be especially important for giving us an update on all the current Justices' take on this crazy-mixed-up Sixth Amendment stuff.

October 1, 2009 in Blakely in the States, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Might the Harris limit on Apprendi be at risk with O'Brien cert grant?

Professor Kevin Reitz sent me this tantalizing e-mail in response to te Supreme Court's cert grant today in O'Brien (basics here):

U.S. v. O’Brien gives the Court the chance to reconsider Harris v. U.S., 536 U.S. 545 (2002), which held that the Apprendi rule doesn’t attach to factfinding at sentencing that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence without increasing the available maximum penalty.  It would certainly be big news if the Court were to overrule Harris.  The Solicitor General’s office doesn’t expect this to happen (otherwise they wouldn’t have filed for cert).  Counting votes, however, it’s hard to call. 

Three dissenters in Harris remain on the Court: Stevens, Thomas, and Ginsburg.   Breyer’s concurring vote in Harris was wobbly — the rationale was that he could not “yet accept” the Apprendi rule.  If “yet” has now arrived, we may have four votes to overrule Harris.   Roberts, Alito, and Sotomayor are not clearly on record.  Sotomayor might well be a 5th vote?  

Stare decisis counts for something here.  Harris reaffirmed an earlier case against a fully-developed Apprendi challenge, so a 180-degree turn in O’Brien would be dramatic.  Still, from a policy view, once Apprendi and Blakely and Booker are the law, it would be nice to eliminate Harris’s mandatory minimum end-run around those cases.

September 30, 2009 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack