Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000)

This case was designed to protect the Sixth Amendment right to a ‘‘speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury’’ and the right inherent in the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to have every element of a criminal offense proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Charles Apprendi fired shots into the home of an African-American family and pleaded guilty to a number of state weapons offenses, the most serious punishable by up to ten years in prison. At sentencing, the New Jersey trial judge applied the state’s statute providing for enhanced sentences for ‘‘hate crimes.’’ Pursuant to this statute, Apprendi faced not ten but twenty years, maximum, and was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. The factual finding that Apprendi acted with racial animus was made by the judge, using a preponderance of evidence standard. Apprendi objected, and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justice Stevens, writing for a five-member majority, declared, ‘‘Other than the fact of a 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.’’

In a dissent representing four justices, Justice O’Connor found the majority’s holding unsupported by history, and she argued that it would disadvantage defendants and undermine three decades of sentencing reform. Under federal sentencing guidelines and state determinate sentencing regimes, judges currently make numerous factual findings that can increase a defendant’s sentence for a particular offense—usually by a preponderance of the evidence standard and generally based upon certain characteristics surrounding the offense (such as whether the offense was committed with a gun) and the offender (such as the extent of his or her criminal history). The goal of the sentencing reform movement is to ensure equality of sentencing for similarly situated defendants in an efficient manner; a shift back to pure judicial discretion in sentencing or jury findings of all facts relevant to sentencing would halt this reform.

Moreover, Justice O’Connor suggested that the majority’s holding amounted to a ‘‘meaningless and formalistic’’ rule that legislatures could easily avoid. For example, New Jersey could increase the maximum sentence for weapons offenses from ten to twenty years’ imprisonment and allow a judge to reduce the penalty to ten years by finding that the defendant did not act with racial animus. Finally, Justice O’Connor predicted that this ‘‘watershed’’ rule would unleash a ‘‘flood of petitions by convicted defendants seeking to invalidate their sentences.’’

In the years since Apprendi was rendered, only one of Justice O’Connor’s predictions has born fruit. Though many state and federal statutes contain facts that boost maximum penalties, prosecutors have adjusted by charging those facts in the indictment and submitting them to the jury. Due to structural democratic constraints, neither Congress nor state legislatures have attempted to avoid Apprendi’s holding by raising statutory maximums. Likewise, Apprendi has not threatened completed criminal prosecutions; the vast majority of those sentences have been upheld on appeal via procedural hurdles such as harmless error, bars against successive petitions, and nonretroactivity (see Schriro v. Summerlin, 124 S.Ct. 2519 [2004]).

However, Apprendi’s negative impact on sentencing reform has been profound. In Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), six justices held that because Arizona conditioned eligibility for the death penalty upon the presence of an aggravating fact that was not an element of first-degree murder, the Sixth Amendment guaranteed the defendant a right to a jury determination of that fact. This threatens the capital sentencing schemes in nine states.

In Blakely v. Washington, the five justices comprising the majority in Apprendi held that the relevant ‘‘statutory maximum’’ for Mr. Blakely’s offense of kidnapping was the fifty-three-month sentence provided for by the Washington state sentencing guidelines and not the ten-year statutory maximum specified for the offense. Thus, the judge could not impose a ninety-month sentence based upon his finding that the defendant acted with ‘‘deliberate cruelty.’’ This decision threatens the sentencing schemes in fourteen states and the federal system. In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. (2005), five members of the Court held that the Sixth Amendment as construed by Blakely applies to judicial findings of fact under federal sentencing guidelines; however, a different fivemember majority held that the remedy was not to submit those facts to the jury, but rather to transform the guidelines from mandatory rules (providing statutory maximum sentences) to advisory guidelines for federal judges.

SUSAN R. KLEIN

References and Further Reading

  • Bowman, Frank O., III, Train Wreck? Or Can the Federal Sentencing System be Saved? A Plea for Rapid Reversal of Blakely v. Washington, Am. Crim. Law Rev. 41 (2004): 215. 
  • Chaneson, Steven L., The Next Era of Sentencing Reform, Emory Law Journal 54 (forthcoming 2005). 
  • King, Nancy J., and Susan R. Klein, Apres Apprendi, Federal Sentencing Reporter 12 (2000): 331. 
  • ———, Essential Elements, Vanderbilt Law Rev. 54 (2001): 1467. 
  • ———, Apprendi and Plea Bargaining, Stanford Law Rev. 54 (2001): 295. 
  • ———, Beyond Blakely, Federal Sentencing Reporter 16 (June 2004): 413. 
  • Klein, Susan R., and Jordan M. Steiker, The Search for Equality in Criminal Sentencing, Supreme Court Rev. 2002 (2003): 223. 
  • Levine, Andrew M., The Confounding Boundaries of ‘‘Apprendi-land’’: Statutory Minimums and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Am. Crim. L. 29 (2002): 377.

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