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Supreme Court hears arguments in sentencing guidelines cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Wednesday in Claiborne v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], a case that could impact sentencing guidelines across the country. Mario Claiborne was sentenced to 15 months in jail and three years probation for possessing and distributing cocaine. The federal sentencing guidelines suggest a 37 to 46-month jail sentence for the offense, but the district court judge at trial felt that was too harsh, since only a small amount of drugs was involved. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] in St. Louis reversed the decision [opinion, PDF], finding that a sentence substantially lower than the minimum suggested by the guidelines could only be justified by extraordinary situations. Michael Dwyer, an assistant federal public defender from St. Louis, said in court that the district court judge had arrived at that sentence by reasonably looking at the individual circumstances of Claiborne's case, but several justices said ignoring the guidelines could result in extreme sentencing disparities.

The Supreme Court also heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Tuesday in the case of Rita v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], where Victor Rita was convicted of obstructing justice and making false statements in a federal grand jury investigation. Rita's lawyer argued that because of Rita's poor health he should be sentenced to less jailtime than the 33 to 41 months recommended by the sentencing guidelines. The trial judge refused to take Victor's individual health into account and imposed a 33-month sentence. The decision was later upheld [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website].

In January 2005, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Booker [opinion text] that the federal sentencing guidelines set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 [PDF text] were advisory, not mandatory. The Court's decision in these cases will clarify lower courts' discretionary power under the Booker holding. AP has more.

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