Blakely v. Washington
542 U.S. 296 (2004)

Annotate this Case

542 U. S. ____ (2004)
NO. 02-1632


on writ of certiorari to the court of appeals of washington, division 3

[June 24, 2004]

   Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice Breyer joins, dissenting.

   The majority opinion does considerable damage to our laws and to the administration of the criminal justice system for all the reasons well stated in Justice O’Connor’s dissent, plus one more: The Court, in my respectful submission, disregards the fundamental principle under our constitutional system that different branches of government “converse with each other on matters of vital common interest.” Mistretta v. United States, 488 U. S. 361, 408 (1989). As the Court in Mistretta explained, the Constitution establishes a system of government that presupposes, not just “ ‘autonomy’ ” and “ ‘separateness,’ ” but also “ ‘interdependence’ ” and “ ‘reciprocity.’ ” Id., at 381 (quoting Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579, 635 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring)). Constant, constructive discourse between our courts and our legislatures is an integral and admirable part of the constitutional design. Case-by-case judicial determinations often yield intelligible patterns that can be refined by legislatures and codified into statutes or rules as general standards. As these legislative enactments are followed by incremental judicial interpretation, the legislatures may respond again, and the cycle repeats. This recurring dialogue, an essential source for the elaboration and the evolution of the law, is basic constitutional theory in action.

   Sentencing guidelines are a prime example of this collaborative process. Dissatisfied with the wide disparity in sentencing, participants in the criminal justice system, including judges, pressed for legislative reforms. In response, legislators drew from these participants’ shared experiences and enacted measures to correct the problems, which, as Justice O’Connor explains, could sometimes rise to the level of a constitutional injury. As Mistretta recognized, this interchange among different actors in the constitutional scheme is consistent with the Constitution’s structural protections.

   To be sure, this case concerns the work of a state legislature, and not of Congress. If anything, however, this distinction counsels even greater judicial caution. Unlike Mistretta, the case here implicates not just the collective wisdom of legislators on the other side of the continuing dialogue over fair sentencing, but also the interest of the States to serve as laboratories for innovation and experiment. See New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U. S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting). With no apparent sense of irony that the effect of today’s decision is the destruction of a sentencing scheme devised by democratically elected legislators, the majority shuts down alternative, nonjudicial, sources of ideas and experience. It does so under a faintly disguised distrust of judges and their purported usurpation of the jury’s function in criminal trials. It tells not only trial judges who have spent years studying the problem but also legislators who have devoted valuable time and resources “calling upon the accumulated wisdom and experience of the Judicial Branch … on a matter uniquely within the ken of judges,” Mistretta, supra, at 412, that their efforts and judgments were all for naught. Numerous States that have enacted sentencing guidelines similar to the one in Washington State are now commanded to scrap everything and start over.

   If the Constitution required this result, the majority’s decision, while unfortunate, would at least be understandable and defensible. As Justice O’Connor’s dissent demonstrates, however, this is simply not the case. For that reason, and because the Constitution does not prohibit the dynamic and fruitful dialogue between the judicial and legislative branches of government that has marked sentencing reform on both the state and the federal levels for more than 20 years, I dissent.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.