Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Ralph Howard Blakely, Jr. (Petitioner), a criminal defendant that pleaded guilty to a crime, alleges that he has a Sixth Amendment constitutional right to a trial by jury before the judge can increase his penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment constitutional right to have a jury, prior to sentencing, determine all punishment-increasing facts about the way in which he carried out that crime, before the judge can increase his penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum.
Issue. Whether a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment constitutional right to trial by jury is violated when during sentencing, a judge rather than a jury decides whether there are reasons justifying a sentence beyond the statutory maximum?
Held. Yes. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) held that the judge’s imposition of the 90-month sentence violated the Petitioner’s right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. The judge could not have imposed the 90-month sentence solely on the basis of the facts admitted in the guilty plea. The right to a jury trial is a fundamental reservation to the people of control over the judiciary in the nation’s constitutional structure which ensures that a judge’s authority to sentence derives wholly from a jury’s verdict. Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum has to be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The Sixth Amendment is not a limitation on judicial power, but a reservation of jury power. It limits judicial power only to the extent that the claimed judicial power infringes on the province of the jury.
Just as suffrage ensures the people's ultimate control in the legislative and executive branches, jury trial is meant to ensure their control in the judiciary.View Full Point of Law
Justices Breyer and O’Connor. The Supreme Court’s decision is fraught with consequences that threaten the fairness of the nation’s traditional criminal justice system. The decision distorts historical sentencing or criminal trial practices, upsets settled law on which legislatures have relied in designing punishment systems, overlooks important institutional considerations, and will impact tens of thousands of criminal prosecutions. This decision will embed further plea bargaining processes that lack transparency and too often mean non-uniform, sometimes arbitrary, sentencing practices.
Discussion. During sentencing, if additional facts of a crime are to be determined, the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury rather than a judge determine those facts. Only then can a judge prescribe a sentence that is above the statutorily authorized maximum.