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Supreme Court limits judges' discretion on minimum sentences

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“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,” Professor Scott said.

The decision won immediate praise from Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project.

“By limiting a judge’s ability to use elements of a crime specifically rejected by a jury in determining whether or not to impose a mandatory minimum, the Court fittingly strengthen due process protections during the sentencing process, and we applaud them for it,” Ms. Sloan said in a statement.

“In cases such as this one that have gone to a jury, we believe it is generally preferable to let the jury be the fact-finder in mandatory minimum sentencing determinations, rather than relying solely on the judge’s discretion,” she said.

Joining Thomas in the majority were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

The case is important because it recognizes an expanded role for juries under the Sixth Amendment to decide key facts of a criminal case, rather than permitting judges to decide such issues.

In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said minimum mandatory sentences imposed by judges do not violate the jury trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment.

“The question here is about the power of judges, not juries,” he wrote in a 10-page dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. (Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate dissent.)

“Under the rule in place until today, a legislature could tell judges that certain facts carried certain weight, and require the judge to devise a sentence based on that weight – so long as the sentence remained within the range authorized by the jury,” he wrote.

The issue arose in the case of Allen Ryan Alleyne. Mr. Alleyne was an accomplice in a plot to rob a store manager of his day’s deposits while on his way to a local bank. The two plotters duped the manager into pulling over at the side of the road where they pretended to be having car trouble.

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