Let judges judge


IN TWIN rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has given back to federal judges more power to do the job they were appointed to do.

Judges long have chafed under federal sentencing guidelines because, rather than being used as guideposts as the name suggests, they have been considered hard and fast rules that don t always fit the crime.

Take the case of Brian Gall, who was a sophomore at the University of Iowa in 2000 when he started delivering the drug ecstasy. After seven months, he stopped participating in the conspiracy and he has not sold or used illegal drugs since.

By the time prosecutors charged him in 2004, he had cleaned up his act, graduated, and was working. He pleaded guilty. The judge said he had self-rehabilitated and sentenced him to probation rather than the 30 to 36 months in prison called for by the guidelines.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the sentence, but the Supreme Court this week upheld what the judge had done. The high court said judges have broad discretion to impose sentences higher or lower than guidelines issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The decisions apply only to federal cases, and they do not overrule mandatory minimum sentences that are set by law.

A second ruling issued on the same day upheld a sentence of 15 years in prison for a Virginia man, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf War with an honorable discharge. Guidelines would have required a minimum sentence of 19 years.

When the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was enacted, the idea behind it was to ensure that a criminal who went before a judge in Pennsylvania received the same prison term he would get if his case was heard in Alabama or California or North Dakota. With its decisions, the Supreme Court said the idea was not to tie judges hands behind their backs.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court made the distinction that the guidelines were advisory and not mandatory. This week s rulings go further, saying judges are sometimes free to ignore the sentencing ranges.

According to Ohio State University law professor Douglas A. Berman, an expert on federal sentencing guidelines, the decisions tell the circuit courts not to tamper with sentences unless the ones imposed by judges are completely out of whack.

A lot of care goes into the selection of federal court judges. They are screened by nominating committees in their states, nominated by the president, and confirmed by the Senate after hearings. They typically bring ample experience and expertise to their courtrooms.

It only makes sense to trust these judges to use their judgment.