Supreme Court Reigns Back Judge Discretion in Court

| by Sarah Siskind
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Earlier today, the Supreme Court ruled in Alleyne v. United States that juries must be informed of any new piece of evidence that might increase the sentence of the accused.

The ruling comes from a case in Virginia four years ago. The defendant, Allen Alleynes, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to a minimum of five years. Later the judge increased his minimum sentence to seven years on the grounds that the defendant had also “brandished” his weapon.

In a split 5-4 decision, the court ruled that this violated Alleynes’ Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, since the issue of whether he had brandished his weapon had not been considered. More to the point, the presence of a gun does not automatically qualify as “brandishing.”

The ruling effectively overturns an earlier Supreme Court decision in 2002. Harris v. United States afforded judges greater discretion in determining what evidence could be presented before a jury when the defendant faces a heightened punishment. Now the court has ruled in favor of an earlier case in 1996, Apprendi v. New Jersey, which mandates that the jury must know and consider any fact that might increase the sentence. 

The judges ruled along partisan lines. The progressives favored the judgment of the jury while the dissenting conservatives, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Alito favored the discretion of the judge.

At issue is whether details that affect the sentence inform or bias the jury. Specifically, if jurors are aware that their decision to convict the defendant will lead to a harsher punishment, will they be inclined to be more lenient and therefore modify their true opinion? On the other hand, isn’t this information highly pertinent to the case and therefore worthy of consideration by the jury?

Sources: Scotus, Raw Story