The Supreme Court Wednesday upheld the constitutionality of congressionally enacted sentencing guidelines that increase prison terms for many federal crimes.
The court, in an 8-1 ruling by Justice Harry Blackmun, upheld the wide ranging sentencing rules that, as of early September, had been found unconstitutional by some 150 federal judges and upheld by some 110 judges. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also struck down the rules.Those opposed to the guidelines argued the makeup of the Sentencing Commission that drew up the rules violated the separation of powers doctrine of the Constitution by placing the commission under the judicial instead of executive branch of government, that Congress delegated excessive authority to the commission and that the guidelines unconstitutionally interfere with a trial judge's sentencing discretion.
The court, however, rejected those views.
While calling the commission an "unusual hybrid in structure and authority," Blackmun said Congress did not delegate excessive legislative power or upset the constitutionally specified balance of powers.
"The Constitution's structural protections do not prohibit Congress from delegating to an expert body located within the judicial branch the intricate task of formulating sentencing guidelines consistent with such significant statutory direction as is present here," he wrote.
"Nor does our system of checked and balanced authority prohibit Congress from calling upon the accumulated wisdom and experience of the judicial branch in creating policy on a matter uniquely within the ken of judges."
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court was wrong and that the case was not about the commingling of the branches of government but "about the creation of a new branch altogether, a sort of junior varsity Congress."
The U.S. Sentencing Commission reacted swifty to the court's decision with Chairman William Wilkins declaring, "This is one of the most important decisions handed down by the court this decade."
Wilkins, a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the guidelines "will dramatically improve the federal criminal justice system by ensuring more uniform, fair and truthful sentences."
"Under the guidelines, the defendant, the victim and the public know why a specific sentence was imposed, what factors the judge considered and what weight he or she accorded those factors," Wilkins said.
"This promotes greater undertanding and respect for our system of criminal justice," he added.