Summary of Blakely v. Washington
Citation: 542 U.S. 296 (2004)
Relevant Facts: Ralph Howard Blakely, Jr. kidnapped his estranged wife from their former marital home in Washington State and drove her to Montana, while forcing their thirteen year old son to follow them in another car. Upon arrest, Blakely was charged in Washington with first-degree kidnapping. However, he entered a plea agreement for second-degree kidnapping, admitting his use of a firearm and that the kidnapping constituted domestic violence. Blakely did not admit any additional facts other than those necessary to satisfy the elements of second-degree kidnapping, to which he voluntarily plead guilty. Under Washington law, Class B felonies (including second-degree kidnapping) are punishable by up to ten years in prison; however, other state law provisions and state sentencing guidelines specified an appropriate prison term of forty-nine to fifty-three months. The same sentencing guidelines contained a non-exclusive list of aggravating factors that might justify deviation from the standard sentence, but only where the trial judge made sufficient factual findings regarding aggravating factors and based the deviation on factors beyond those considered in formulating the traditional sentence. Here, the trial judge concluded that Blakely’s crimes were motivated by deliberate cruelty (one of the aggravating facts for domestic violence cases) and imposed a ninety month sentence over Blakely’s objections. The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed and the State Supreme Court declined review.
Issue: Whether a State may, consistent with the right to a jury trial afforded by the Sixth Amendment, impose a sentence beyond that provided by statute based on facts not determined by a jury?
Holding: No, the reliance on facts neither admitted by the defendant nor determined by a jury to impose an enhanced sentence violates the Sixth Amendment rights of a defendant.
Reasoning: Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court. He began by pointed out that here the Court was merely applying existing law, having previously determined that defendants may not be subjected to sentences beyond the statutory maximum based on facts neither admitted nor proven by a jury. Here, Justice Scalia concluded that the maximum sentence absent additional facts was fifty-three months. While the petitioner admitted sufficient facts in his guilty plea as to the underlying charge, he did not admit any facts necessary for the judge to conclude that aggravating factors existed. While the judge did make findings of fact, the majority pointed out that such fact-finding is for the jury unless the defendant waives his right to a jury. Next, Justice Scalia pointed out that the Sixth Amendment requires more than jury determination of the underlying facts. The majority here preferred a bright-line rule in this context, requiring admission or jury determination of all relevant facts necessary for the sentence imposed. Finally, the Court explained that this case was not about the constitutionality of determinative sentencing. The basic guarantees of the jury system protect citizens from convictions and sentences without the participation of their peers. While the use of facts not submitted to a jury violates that guarantee, there is not concomitant threat to the permissibility of sentencing guidelines per se so long as the procedure for imposing those sentencing requirements complies with the Sixth Amendment.
Dissent: Justice O’Connor dissented, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Breyer, and Justice Kennedy in part. She argued that the rule announced by the majority would force states to abandon sentencing guidelines and open the criminal justice system to the same inconsistencies that gave rise to reform efforts resulting in standard sentences for similar crimes. Furthermore, Justice O’Connor argued that the standard here was higher, and less uniform, that prior to adoption of sentencing guidelines. As she pointed out, in the absence of additional reform efforts, Blakely could have been subject to a ten-year sentence rather than the more limited maximum of fifty-three months. She concluded that the majority’s holding here would either force States to include all facts underlying required sentences in indictments or abandon sentencing guidelines altogether.
Justice Kennedy dissented, joined by Justice Breyer. While he joined the bulk of Justice O’Connor’s opinion, he wrote separately to discuss the importance of collaboration between branches of government. Here, judges sought reform of the sentencing process. The legislature complied, responding to the concerns of the judiciary. Justice Kennedy argued that the majority here discounted the important nature of that collaborative process, and did so without a Constitutional requirement to do so for the reasons expressed by Justice O’Connor in dissent.
Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice O’Connor. He argued that the majority places improper emphasis on whether the legislature described certain facts as elements of a greater/lesser offense or a factor in sentencing. To Justice Breyer, it made little difference under the Sixth Amendment whether a particular fact was the element of a crime or a factor in sentencing. He suggested three potential outcomes based on the majority holding here. First, he foresaw the possibility of greater use in determinative sentencing- requiring the same sentence for every conviction of a particular crime. Next, he predicted that some states would return to greater judicial discretion in indeterminate sentencing, the prevailing standard prior to reforms. Finally, Justice Breyer suggested the possibility of maintaining the current system with additional requirements on prosecutors; namely, he felt the holding here could be read as requiring submission of specific aggravating factors to the jury prior to an enhanced sentence. He concluded by pointing out the potential for far-reaching consequences, including the dismantling of sentencing reform efforts, and argued that the Court should have addressed these potential consequences in order to provide greater certainty to the system.
Conclusion: States may not, consistent with the constitution, impose enhanced sentences on criminal defendants unless every fact necessary for such a sentence is either admitted by the defendant or determined by the jury.