West Law Report

Allocation of Factfinding in Sentencing

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review: Cunningham v. California (2007) (11 page)

Sixth Amendment — Allocation of Factfinding in Sentencing

Apprendi v. New Jersey spawned a series of Supreme Court sentencing decisions which, when viewed together, are at best confusing and at worst contradictory. Commentators and courts have struggled to find a coherent governing principle uniting Apprendi, Blakely v. Washington, and United States v. Booker. The holding in Apprendi, originally described as a “bright-line rule,” has proved anything but. Last Term, in Cunningham v. California, the Court added another chapter to the Apprendi saga when it declared unconstitutional California’s Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL). Justice Ginsburg authored the majority opinion that overturned the California Supreme Court’s determination that the DSL did not differ in any constitutionally relevant way from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, as revised by Booker.

Although at first blush Cunningham seems to be an ode to meaningless formalism, reading between the lines of its opinions exposes a substantive debate about what the Sixth Amendment means and why it matters. The Court’s decision implicitly protects the role of the jury, so that the voices of individual citizens may serve as a check against the legislature when it diverges from the will of the people.

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