Three federal judges Thursday rejected portions of a controversial sentencing law, joining several courts nationwide that have found sentencing "guidelines" either in whole or in part unconstitutional.
Because many federal district courts have rejected the guidelines and appeals courts have differed on the guidelines, the Supreme Court next term plans to review the law that created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which wrote the guidelines.Effective for crimes committed on or after Nov. 1, 1987, the strict "guidelines" limit judges' discretion in sentencing with the goal that criminals receive similar sentences no matter where they are sentenced if their crimes and circumstances are similar.
The Supreme Court will decide whether it is constitutional to deprive judges of some latitude in sentencing and whether the Sentencing Commission violates the Constitution's separation of powers.
Opponents say the separation of powers was violated when the legislative branch told the executive branch to name a commission that in turn told members of the judicial branch how to do their job.
Rejecting the guidelines as unconstitutional Thursday were U.S. District Judges Thomas Wiseman Jr., John Nixon and Thomas Higgins, all of the Middle District of Tennessee.
Individual district judges in Seattle and Boise are among those who have already rejected the guidelines, as did the federal district court in Baltimore, where the full bench issued a statement denouncing the guidelines. Federal judges in Miami ruled the guidelines unconstitutional June 15.
While precise statistics were not available Thursday, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brent Ward last Friday told federal judges in Salt Lake City that more than 100 federal judges nationwide have ruled the sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional, while 66 have denied challenges to their legality. Ward said there are more than 900 federal judges nationwide.
Uncertainty about sentences to be imposed under the guidelines and whether the guidelines are constitutional have slowed the criminal justice system nationwide.
In the Nashville case, the nine defendants who challenged the guidelines "need to decide whether to enter a guilty plea or to risk trial. Essential to this determination is knowledge of the possible sentence that may be imposed," the Nashville judges wrote.
"More broadly, the longer the constitutionality of the guidelines remains uncertain, the more deeply this court and the criminal justice system will be impacted," they wrote.
The judges said the framers of the Constitution expected Congress to assume primary responsiblity for the formulation of policy.
The judges said that while the guidelines are unconstitutional, other parts of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 are constitutional.