Court Agrees To Rule on New Sentencing Guidelines With AM-Scotus Rdp Bjt
Jun. 13, 1988
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide the fate of a new sentencing system for federal crimes that some judges have refused to adopt.
At issue are U.S. Sentencing Commission rules that took effect Nov. 1. The validity of the commission itself likely is at stake also, and a decision is expected sometime in 1989.
More than 50 federal trial judges have refused to use the new sentencing rules, declaring them or the commission unconstitutional. But dozens of their colleagues have imposed sentences under the new rules.
The Reagan administration, citing the ''intolerable uncertainty'' caused by the conflicing rulings, urged the justices to resolve the issue even before any federal appeals court has ruled on it.
Today, the justices granted the administration's speeded-up appeal.
Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the court's action pleased him.
''It is vitally important that these issues are resolved by the court as quickly as possible,'' Thurmond said.
By the time the court announces its decision in a test case from Missouri, thousands of defendants will have to be resentenced - regardless which way the court rules.
If the justices uphold the system, those defendants sentenced by judges who refused to apply the new rules will have to be resentenced. If the justices invalidate the system, those defendants sentenced under the new rules will have to be resentenced.
The commission estimates that by Jan. 1 more than 10,000 federal court defendants will have been subjected to the new sentencing system.
The commission was created by Congress in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, legislation aimed at eliminating disparities in sentences.
The law empowers the commission, with seven members appointed to six-year terms by the the president, to tell federal judges what sentences, within certain ranges, should be imposed for various crimes. Three of the commission's members must be federal judges.
The commission's rules - called ''guidelines'' even though the 1984 law makes them binding on all federal judges - eliminated parole and curtailed credit for good behavior.
Judges who have struck down the new sentencing system have ruled:
-That Congress avoided political accountability by unconstitutionally delegating its legislative power to the commission.
-That the commission, because it includes members of the judiciary and holds legislative power, violates the Constitution's separation of powers principles.
-That the new rules violate defendants' due-process rights by curbing too severely the sentencing discretion of judges.
In urging the justices to uphold the sentencing commission's authority, lawyers for the commission said the 1984 law ''reflects a massive interbranch commitment to the creation of ... a major improvement in the administration of justice.''
The test case accepted for review stems from the prosecution of John M. Mistretta, who pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to possess and distribute cocaine after his arrest last December in Kansas City, Mo.
Before Mistretta's sentence was imposed, he challenged the new sentencing rules. A trial judge dismissed the challenge, and sentenced Mistretta to 18 months in prison, to be followed by a three-year term of supervised release.
Mistretta then appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but Justice Department lawyers asked the Supreme Court to decide the case while it is pending before the appeals court.