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Rita and Cunningham

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The U.S. Supreme Court today issued its long-awaited decision in Rita v. United States. The Court held that a federal court of appeals can presume on appeal that a within-Guideline sentence is reasonable in the post-Booker regime. Copious commentary on the direct implications of this decision for federal sentencing is available at Sentencing Law and Policy. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog had this analysis at 10:03 a.m. A commenter asks how he can do that. Good question.

Also of interest are the implications of this decision for Blakely challenges to state sentencing systems, particularly the "how the heck do we cope with Cunningham" cases presently pending before the California Supreme Court. I think the decision bodes well for the argument that only minimal adjustment is needed for the existing cases and that the legislative fix for new cases is valid.

In the old cases, the defendants are claiming that all facts going into the decision to impose the upper term must be found by the jury. Nope.

This CourtÂ’'s Sixth Amendment cases do not automatically forbid a sentencing court to take account of factual matters not determined by a jury and to increase the sentence in consequence.... The Sixth Amendment question, the Court has said, is whether the law forbids a judge to increase a defendantÂ’'s sentence unless the judge finds facts that the jury did not find (and the offender did not concede).

The California law at issue in Cunningham did forbid the upper term unless the judge found one aggravating fact. After that, Rita confirms, judge fact-finding is okay. In the new law, there is no fact-finding requirement at all.

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Mr. Denniston is a member of the Supreme Court press corps. I believe they are permitted access to the opinions in a room at the Court before the opinions are made public.

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