Supreme Court Rules That Guidelines Sentences May Be Considered Presumptively Reasonable on Appeal

Matthew Lee
June 5, 2008 — 1,001 views  

In its first major sentencing decision since its landmark ruling in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), invalidating the mandatory nature of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, the Supreme Court has held that appellate courts may apply a presumption of reasonableness to sentences falling within the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines range (and therefore uphold such sentences) without running afoul of the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial right. See Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. ___ (June 21, 2007). While it remains to be seen how the Court’s ruling will be implemented by the lower courts, the practical implications of such a holding may well be to encourage district court judges to impose Guidelines sentences more frequently to ensure that they are not reversed on appeal, as well as to imbue the Guidelines with more weight than they may properly be due in the post-Booker era.

In Booker, which held that the Sentencing Guidelines were only one of the several factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) to be considered as part of the sentencing calculus, the Court held that appellate courts were to review sentences imposed post-Booker for “reasonableness.” Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court in Rita resolves a circuit split that emerged post-Booker and holds that in reviewing federal sentences, the courts of appeal may apply a presumption of reasonableness to sentences falling within the advisory Sentencing Guidelines range. Justice Breyer (a former member of the Sentencing Commission) justified the Court’s holding by explaining that the Sentencing Guidelines embody years of study and analysis of sentencing decisions by the Sentencing Commission (which remain ongoing) and that the Guidelines as enacted “reflect a rough approximation of sentences that might achieve § 3553(a)’s objectives.” As such, a sentence within the applicable advisory Guidelines may be presumed to be reasonable according to the Court’s decision.

Justice Breyer’s opinion further addressed the degree to which a district court must set forth its reasons for imposing a particular sentence as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). While noting that a statement of reasons is “important”—“The sentencing judge should set forth enough to satisfy the appellate court that he has considered the parties’ arguments and has a reasoned basis for exercising his own legal decisionmaking authority”— the Court held that when a district court imposes a within-Guidelines sentence, “doing so will not necessarily require lengthy explanation.” When a sentencing judge imposes a sentence outside the Guidelines range, however, the judge should go further and “explain why he has done so.”

Justice Breyer’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Alito. Justices Scalia and Thomas concurred in the judgment of the Court. Justice Souter filed the lone dissenting opinion.

To learn more about this issue, please contact: Matthew D. Lee at (215) 569-5352 or at [email protected]

Matthew Lee

Blank Rome LLP