In the wake of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case involving federal sentencing guidelines, the nation’s high court has agreed to take up the issue of when federal sentences are “reasonable.”

The question is an important one after the Supreme Court ruled in January 2005 that the nearly 20-year-old mandatory federal sentencing system, as applied, violated the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because it allowed judges to make factual findings that increased defendants’ sentences based on facts not found by a jury or admitted by the defendant. In order to pass constitutional muster, the Court ruled last year, the sentencing guidelines must be advisory, not mandatory. In its decision, the Court explained that judges are required to consult the guidelines and take them into account when sentencing defendants. However, judges now have the discretion to deviate from the guidelines, with sentences being reviewed for “reasonableness” on appeal.

In one of the cases to be decided this term, the Supreme Court will determine whether a 15-month sentence for possession and distribution of crack cocaine was reasonable, when the guidelines called for a sentence of 37 to 46 months. In that case, a Missouri federal judge imposed the 15-month sentence on Mario Claiborne because of the small quantity of drugs involved, his young age, lack of a criminal history, and the court’s opinion that Claiborne was unlikely to commit similar crimes in the future. On appeal, the 8th Circuit sided with the government, and ruled that the 15-month sentence was unreasonable.

In the second, related case that the Supreme Court has agreed to decide, the defendant, Victor A. Rita, was given a 33-month sentence for perjury,
obstruction of justice, and making false statements. That sentence fell within the sentencing guidelines range, and was upheld by the 4th Circuit, but the defendant appealed the sentence to the high court. The Supreme Court will determine whether that sentence is reasonable as well.

The cases are Claiborne v. U.S., Supreme Court of the United States, No.
06-5618, and Rita v. U.S., Supreme Court of the United States, No. 06-5754. Oral arguments are expected to be heard by the high court in early 2007, with a decision issued by the end of June.