WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) agreed Monday to settle whether long-standing federal rules for sentencing criminals violate the Constitution, a question that has thrown federal courthouses into disarray this summer.
The high court said it will hear two cases suggested by the Bush administration. The Justice Department (search) had rushed the appeals just weeks after the court ruled major portions of a state sentencing system unconstitutional.
That system in the state of Washington, like the federal sentencing system, relied on judges to make many decisions that can affect the length of a defendant's sentence. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that juries must decide any matter that can lengthen a sentence beyond the maximum set out in state sentencing guidelines, or the defendant must admit it.
Federal trial judges routinely make such findings as the quantity of drugs involved in a crime or whether a gun was used.
Trial judges and appeals courts have divided over whether the Supreme Court's ruling in Blakely v. Washington invalidates the federal sentencing system, with some judges concluding that they cannot continue sentencing criminal defendants under the old rules.