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October 21, 2005

New Mexico Supreme Court deepens state split over Blakely

I just got news of another major development concerning in Blakely in the states.  Contributing to what I have called a form of judicial federalism, the New Mexico Supreme Court has added another chapter to the dynamic (and confusing) story of diverse state high court Blakely rulings.   (Interestingly, this major New Mexico Blakely ruling apparently came down last week, but I just heard about it today and it does not yet appear on either Lexis or Westlaw.)

In New Mexico v. Lopez, No. 28 483 (N.M. Oct. 14, 2005) (available here), the New Mexico Supreme Court dodged applying Blakely to the state's sentencing system.  The Lopez court relied heavily on the controversial California Supreme Court decision in Black which found Blakely essentially inapplicable to California's determinate sentencing scheme (Black basics here, commentary here and here).  The Lopez decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court, along with a partial dissent from Justice Chavez, makes for quite interesting reading.  Here are just a few of many notable passages from the majority opinion in Lopez:

We perceive ambiguity within Blakely and Apprendi that has contributed to inconsistent opinions from the Court of Appeals.  We believe that Booker provides a basis for believing [that our pre-Blakely decision rejecting Apprendi's applicability to our sentencing system] was decided correctly.  As the California Supreme Court has reasoned in Black, the United States Supreme Court cases ought not be viewed as "draw[ing] a bright line, but Booker makes clear that the concept of a discretionary sentencing decision is not limited to those decisions that involve complete, unguided, and unreviewable discretion."...

Our Legislature did not intend to confer a right to a basic sentence but rather to limit the trial court's discretion to punish within a range by taking into consideration a wide range of circumstances, and to provide for meaningful appellate review.  We believe our sentencing scheme reflects an appropriate legislative deference to judicial discretion in sentencing as well as respect for the jury's role in determining guilt or innocence of crimes defined by statute. The mandatory language of Section 31-18-15(B) and writing requirement of Section 31-18-15.1(A) were intended to limit the judge's sentencing discretion by imposing a standard of reasonableness, rather than creating a right in defendants to be sentenced to the basic sentence.  See Black, 113 P.3d at 543-44....  We believe New Mexico's sentencing scheme, so construed, is consistent with Booker....  We conclude, as did the California Supreme Court in reviewing its state's sentencing scheme, that New Mexico's sentencing scheme illustrates an appropriate reliance on judicial discretion to sentence following a jury verdict, bench trial, or guilty plea.

October 21, 2005 at 02:42 PM | Permalink


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I am not familiar with New Mexico sentencing law, but relying upon the law as it is explained in this opinion, I find it hard to distinguish the sentencing statute in Blakely with the sentencing statute in Lopez. COMPARE:

New Mexico statute (as explained in Lopez):
"'[t]he appropriate basic sentence of imprisonment shall be imposed upon a person convicted and sentenced . . . unless the court alters the sentence pursuant to the provisions of' one or more of four statutes." Lopez, para. 31.

Washington statue in Blakely:
"A judge may impose a sentence above the standard range if he finds 'substantial and compelling reasons justifying an exceptional sentence.' The Act lists aggravating factors that justify such a departure, which it recites to be illustrative rather than exhaustive." Blakely, 124 S. Ct. 2531, 2535 (2004).

Without altering the substance of the statute, one could easily rephrase either of these statutes to make them nearly identical to each other.

Also, note that the statue involved in Blakely explicitly says “substantial and compelling reasons.” Given this, the New Mexico Court incorrectly differentiates “reasons” from “facts.” In attempting to distinguish the NM statue from the WA statue, the NM Court argues that the NM statute is constitutional because “[t]he [NM] statute requires a writing stating ‘reasons’ rather than findings of fact.” Lopez, para. 40. But as shown above, the WA statue also involved “reasons,” yet the Supreme Court still found it to be unconstitutional.

The NM Court and the CA Court in Black rely heavily on Booker’s remedy. But there is a difference between the NM statue and the now advisory FSG. Under the new advisory FSG, a judge can sentence anywhere within the statutory range regardless of any finding whatsoever. Under the NM statute, the judge can only enhance a sentence “pursuant to the provisions of' one or more of four statutes.” Lopez, para. 31.

Am I wrong, or did the NM Court really miss the boat on this one?

Posted by: DEJ | Oct 21, 2005 6:02:51 PM

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