On January 12, 2005, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. ___, 125 S. Ct. 738 (2005), dramatically altering the federal sentencing landscape.   In Booker, the Court held that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee to a trial by jury.   The Court's remedy for this constitutional violation was to require that federal judges must consider, but need not be bound by, the sentencing guidelines.

Last year, in what may now be viewed as a precursor to Booker, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. ___, 124 S. Ct. 2531 (2004).   In the Blakely case, the Court held that the state of Washington's sentencing guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment's right to a trial by jury by permitting judges to base sentences on facts that were not decided by the jury.   Thus, for many it came as no surprise when the Court extended Blakely to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in United States v. Booker.

There are two basic parts to the Booker decision.   The first part addresses whether the Guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a trial by jury by permitting federal judges to base sentencing decisions on facts never heard or decided by the jury.   Five Justices, from both ideological ends of the Court, answered this question in the affirmative.

In the second part of Booker, the Court considered the appropriate remedy for this violation of the right to a jury trial.   Although there were arguably two obvious choices-first, to strike down the Guidelines in their entirety and go back to pre-1984, or second, to hold that the jury, not the judge, must find the facts necessary to the application of the guidelines-the Court chose neither, and instead made a rule that was not advocated by either side in the case.   The Court held that the appropriate remedy was to make the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.   After Booker, federal judges will still be required to consider the guidelines and their goals when imposing sentences; however, the Court held that the guidelines can only survive as constitutionally sound if they are advisory, not mandatory.

A fuller discussion of the Booker decision and its impact will be available in the Spring 2005 edition of Dorsey's White Collar Crime and Civil Fraud Newsletter, which is expected to be published by the end of March.   In the interim, if you have any questions, please contact Dorsey's WCC practice group co-chairs Ed Magarian, at (612) 340-7873, or Zach Carter, (212) 415-9345.