Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989)

The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act revised the prior system of indeterminate sentencing in favor of fixed sentencing guidelines to be promulgated by a new Sentencing Commission. In Mistretta v. United States, the Supreme Court, with only Justice Scalia dissenting, upheld the constitutionality of the commission in the face of challenges from convicts awaiting sentencing under the guidelines.

Mistretta argued that the commission was unconstitutional because Congress unlawfully delegated authority to it and because it was established in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers. Mistretta’s first argument, which implicated the nondelegation doctrine, was rejected because the Court found that Congress satisfied the requirements for lawful delegations set forth in J. W. Hampton, Jr., & Co. v. United States, which permits delegations of legislative authority as long as Congress articulates an ‘‘intelligible principle’’ the recipient of the delegation must follow.

The Court rejected Mistretta’s second argument by finding that placement of the commission within the judicial branch was proper given the judiciary’s traditional role in sentencing. The justices found no problem with the fact that the commission’s membership consisted of a mixture of federal judges and political appointees.

The implications of this decision were to validate a system of determinate sentencing that for nearly twenty years generally resulted in the imposition of lengthier sentences for offenders that judges were not at liberty to reject. More recently, however, the Court in United States v. Booker held that the guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial and relegated them to ‘‘advisory’’ status. A.

BENJAMIN SPENCER

References and Further Reading

  • Aman, Alfred C., Jr., and William T. Mayton. Administrative Law. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2001.
  • Madison, James. The Federalist, Nos. 47 and 51.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • J. W. Hampton, Jr., & Co. v. United States, 276 U.S. 394 (1928)
  • United States v. Booker, 125 S. Ct. 738 (2005)

See also Sentencing Guidelines

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