ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Uphold Right to Trial By Jury

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
March 23, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in a case that raises important questions about the centuries-old right to a trial by jury, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Blakely v. Washington, 02-1632, is the latest in a series of recent cases involving state laws that permit enhanced criminal sentences based on factual determinations made by a judge rather than a jury. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU urged the Court to reaffirm the jury’s central role in resolving critical factual issues beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The right to a trial by jury and to sentencing based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt is fundamental to the American justice system,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU. “State lawmakers cannot do an end run around the jury trial requirement by allowing judges to make critical findings that can result in substantially longer sentences than allowed by established guidelines.”

At issue is the case of Ralph Blakely, Jr., who pled guilty to second-degree kidnapping and second-degree assault in Washington State court. While the state’s sentencing standards call for a maximum 49-53 month sentence for his crime, Blakely was sentenced to 90 months in prison. The sentencing judge, without a jury, imposed the additional 37-month term based on facts that he believed were proven by a mere “preponderance of the evidence.” The standard the judge used to extend the sentence was weaker than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required in a jury trial, Shapiro noted.

A state court upheld the longer sentence, saying that it was still within the range set by the legislature and that a judge could therefore make such determinations. But in its brief, the ACLU pointed out that such exceptions are unusual; in the overwhelming majority of cases in the state, people are sentenced within the 49-53 month range. The Supreme Court agreed to consider Blakely’s case after the Washington Supreme Court – which has upheld the sentencing method in other cases – declined review.

The ACLU’s brief relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that a jury must make the critical findings that can lead to an enhanced sentence under a hate crime law. “A state cannot sidestep these constitutional safeguards merely by re-labeling them as sentencing factors,” the ACLU said.

The ACLU also cited the Court’s 2001 decision in Ring v. Arizona, in which the Justices made clear that the critical factual issues in a death penalty trial must also be resolved by a jury rather than a judge.

The ACLU’s brief, which was filed by the national ACLU and its Washington State affiliate, is online at /node/36290

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