WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court struck down yesterday a part of California's 30-year-old sentencing law that allows judges to add several years to a criminal's prison term.
The ruling could mean new sentencing hearings for several thousand state prisoners who were recently given longer terms. If their sentences are still being appealed, they can take advantage of today's ruling.
But the decision does not necessarily mean they will get lighter sentences.
Indeed, the Supreme Court's interest was not in whether prison terms are too long or too short, but rather how they are decided.
In a 6-3 ruling, the justices said California's sentencing law is flawed because it promises defendants a "middle term" prison term when they have been convicted of a crime, but then allows judges to impose a much longer sentence based on "facts" decided by the judge alone. This extra prison time violates the defendant's right to a trial by jury, the court said.
Paradoxically, the solution may be to give judges even more authority to decide on a prison sentence, the high court said.
"The ball lies in California's court," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, apparently referring to the state Supreme Court. It could follow the lead of other states and "call upon the jury - either at trial or in a separate sentencing proceeding - to find any fact necessary to the imposition of an elevated sentence," she said.
Or it could do the opposite and "permit judges genuinely to exercise broad discretion with a statutory range" to impose a sentence, she said.
This curious result is the latest in a series of rulings this decade in which the high court, though badly divided, has sought to readjust the balance between judges and juries when it comes to deciding prison sentences.
An odd coalition of its liberal and conservative blocs, led by Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, has moved to strike down sentences that were imposed based on facts found by the trial judges, not the jury.
In a New Jersey case, a defendant pleaded guilty to firing a shot into his neighbor's house, a crime with a 10-year maximum prison term. However, the judge sentenced the defendant, Charles Apprendi, to 12 years in prison after finding it was a racially motivated hate crime.
In a 5-4 decision in 2000, the court struck down the extra two years of prison time, saying the jury should have decided whether this behavior was a hate crime.
Since then, the court has struggled to decide whether this principle applies to middle term sentences, not just those that exceed the legal maximum for the crime.
David Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.