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Supreme Court hears arguments on mandatory sentences, speedy trial clause

The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Monday in two cases [JURIST report]. In Alleyne v. United States [transcript, PDF], the court heard arguments on whether to overturn Harris v. United States [opinion]. Harris was a 5-4 splintered opinion that allowed a judge to be the fact-finder when increasing mandatory minimum sentences, as opposed to requiring the question to go to the jury. Since the case was decided, the court has gained three new members, and two in the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, have left the court. Counsel for the petitioner argued, "Any fact that entitles a prosecution by law to a sentence more severe than a judge could otherwise impose must be found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt." Counsel for the US urged the court to adhere to its ruling in Harris, "because those decisions properly respected the fact that a mandatory minimum divests the defendant of the right to judicial leniency."

In Boyer v. Louisiana [transcript, PDF], the court considered a Sixth Amendment [text] case directly on appeal from the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Third Circuit [opinion]. At issue is if the state violates the "speedy trial clause" by not paying court-appointed counsel in a timely manner. Counsel for the petitioner argued that the Louisiana court incorrectly determined that the cause of the delay was beyond the control of the state. Counsel for Louisiana argued that while the delay may have been within the state's control, the court should nonetheless uphold the lower court's reasoning. Much media attention was given to the fact that Justice Clarence Thomas, known for remaining silent during oral arguments, broke his seven-year silence during this argument with the words "Well—he did not." It is unclear exactly what he meant, but he spoke in response to questioning from Justice Antonin Scalia about the lawyer in the case being Harvard educated.

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