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The U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a New Jersey hate crimes law Monday was largely overshadowed by the release of Dickerson v. United States affirming the Miranda warning. But legal experts say the Court’s 5-4 ruling in Apprendi v. New Jersey actually could have a broader day-to-day impact on the criminal justice system than Dickerson. The ruling — which said that juries, and not judges, must determine the facts that increase many criminal sentences — could trigger a full-scale review of federal and state sentencing guidelines and could unleash a wave of defense challenges. “This is the bigger case,” said Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and a former federal prosecutor. “It is going to revolutionize federal drug cases.” Building on a series of recent decisions, the Court in Apprendi announced a constitutionally based rule: “Other than the fact of prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” At first, many commentators saw the decision’s impact as limited to New Jersey’s unusual hate crime law which gives the judge, not the jury, the task of deciding whether a crime was motivated by racial or gender bias — a determination that can double a defendant’s sentence, well beyond the limit for the original crime. But by Tuesday, some experts were waking up to the prospect that the Court’s principle could affect other sentencing schemes. Some say the ruling calls into question almost any statute that allows judges to make the factual determinations that increase sentences, such as the quantity of drugs or the dollar value of a criminal enterprise. In light of the decision, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has to cull “through the guidelines, almost guideline by guideline and offense by offense” to review possible changes, said John Steer, a commission member and former counsel. Steer said he did not think wholesale changes in guidelines would be necessary. Former commission Chair William Wilkins, a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., added, “I’m not ready to say the rule has been turned upside down. It’s something the Sentencing Commission will have to look at.” Beyond sentencing guidelines, the Apprendi decision may encourage defense attorneys to challenge clients’ sentences. “Any defense lawyer worth his or her salt is going to look at this,” says Notre Dame law Professor Jimmy Gurule, an expert on complex criminal cases and a former federal prosecutor. Gurule pointed to the federal drug kingpin statute, in which findings by a judge can hike a sentence from 20 years to life in prison, as one potential target for review. Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the Sacramento, Calif.-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, also predicted that “a lot of people are going to be challenging their sentence enhancements” in the wake of Apprendi. Justice John Paul Stevens, in his 32-page majority opinion, suggested that allowing judges to weigh sentence-enhancing factors is acceptable if the ultimate sentence remains within the range permitted by law. And several commentators on Monday said the vast majority of sentence increases allowed by federal and state guidelines fit that limitation. But in dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor worried that it may not be possible to limit the impact of the rule announced by the majority to cases in which sentences exceed the statutory limit for the offense. She described the distinction “meaningless and formalistic,” suggesting that all sentence-enhancements handled by judges could be subject to attack. Describing the majority opinion as a “watershed change in constitutional law,” O’Connor said the ruling casts “serious doubt” on federal and state sentencing systems alike. She also predicted that the decision would provoke “a flood of petitions by convicted defendants seeking to invalidate their sentences.” Joining O’Connor were Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer. Breyer, himself an early member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Court’s leading expert on the issue, also wrote a dissent suggesting that the majority’s new constitutional rule may endanger all sentencing systems. “The rationale that underlies the Court’s rule suggests a principle — jury determination of all sentencing-related facts — that, unless restricted, threatens the workability of every criminal justice system,” Breyer wrote.

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