West Law Report

Presumption of Reasonableness of Sentencing

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review: Rita v. United States (2007) (11 pages)

Sixth Amendment — Federal Sentencing Guidelines — Presumption of Reasonableness

In United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court found that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment. It held the Guidelines unconstitutional because they required judges to increase sentences above the level authorized by facts conceded by the defendant or found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Its remedy — making the Guidelines advisory rather than mandatory and changing the standard of review on appeal to reasonableness — created a host of contested legal questions, including whether appellate courts could apply a presumption of reasonableness in reviewing sentences falling within the applicable Guidelines range.

Last Term, in Rita v. United States, the Supreme Court held that an appellate court could apply such a presumption. But by also articulating a weak standard for the requirement that a sentencing judge provide a statement of reasons for the penalty she imposes, the Court
undermined the rationale justifying the presumption. In so doing, i implicitly sanctioned lower court treatment of the Guidelines as de facto mandatory after Booker. To justify an appellate presumption founded on the exercise of independent trial-level judgment and to make real the constitutional promise of Booker, trial judges should be required to express in writing their precise reasons for choosing a particular sentence and rejecting any departures sought by the defendant. In January 2003, Victor Rita purchased a machine gun parts kit from InterOrdnance of America, Inc., the target of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives investigation. That October, Rita provided testimony before a grand jury that was contradicted by separate evidence. The government indicted Rita in the United States District Court for the District of North Carolina on various charges, including making false statements under oath to a federal grand jury. The jury convicted Rita on all counts.

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