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Supreme Court sentencing decision 'ugly': IU Maurer School of Law expert

June 17, 2013


The U.S. Supreme Court's decision today in Alleyne v. United States clears up an anomaly among Sixth Amendment sentencing cases. But according to an IU Maurer School of Law expert, the court's close margin of decision and apparent unwillingness to overrule prior decisions have set the stage for further disputes.

"Before today, the right to trial by jury played an important role in limiting the maximum sentence to which a criminal defendant is exposed, but no role in limiting the minimum," said Ryan W. Scott, associate professor of law. "Recognizing that there was no persuasive reason to draw a constitutional distinction between the sentencing ceiling and floor, the court has announced that the Sixth Amendment applies equally to both."

Scott explained that the holding in Alleyne is important because it will affect a wide range of both federal and state cases in which the defendant's sentence is governed by a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment triggered by particular facts, such as brandishing a gun, possessing a threshold quantity of drugs or causing a specified amount of financial loss to victims.

"That said, this was an ugly case," he continued. "A sharply divided 5-4 result was produced by an unusual and uneasy coalition of justices. Even the five members of the majority could not agree on how the Sixth Amendment's history applies to sentencing facts such brandishing a firearm. Justice (Stephen) Breyer was the swing vote, and his change of heart over the last decade proved decisive despite his continuing reservations about the court's sentencing case law."

Scott noted that in dissent, Justice Samuel Alito blasted the majority for failing to respect stare decisis, the principle that the court should adhere to its prior decisions, noting that the court had previously approved judicial fact-finding to trigger a mandatory minimum in two prior cases. "Given the close margin of decision, coupled with the justices' apparent willingness to revisit and overrule their decisions in this area, Alleyne feels like the latest pull in a 12-year tug-of-war, rather than a decisive victory," Scott said.

Scott is available to comment on Alleyne and other cases involving federal sentencing guidelines. He can be reached at 812.856.5941, or at