Denied: Jones v. United States

The Supreme Court, last Tuesday, closely decided to not hear a case that dealt with sixth amendment rights. That case was Jones v. United States.

The Case, Explained


Jones v. United States involves three men in Washington, DC, in a drug distribution case. Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston, and Antuwan Bell were brought before a federal court for two main reasons: a smaller charge for dealing small amounts of drugs, and a larger charge for conspiring to run an “open-air” market for large amounts of crack cocaine. The jury found the defendants guilty of the smaller charge and acquitted them (found them not guilty) of the larger charge.

Before I go on, it is important to note that in trials, the reason why we categorize criminals as “guilty” and “not guilty” (rather than “innocent”) is because the goal of the prosecution is to prove that the defendant was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is, unless the jury holds a reasonable doubt that the defendant is innocent, he/she will be charged as guilty. The decision doesn’t come down to whether the defendant is innocent, but whether the jury finds him/her guilty or not.

In the three men’s case, after the jury found them guilty of the less serious charge and acquitted them of the more serious charge, the judge of the federal court in effect disregarded a factual finding of the jury (or rather a lack thereof – the jury had a reasonable doubt about a fact that was integral to the more serious crime charge and dismissed it) and sentenced the men for both charges, drastically expanding their prison times (by about four times the length). Suddenly, prison sentences that should have been 33 to 71 months became 180 to 225 months. Members of the jury were not too pleased. Juror 6 wrote a letter to the judge decrying his actions. In an appeals court, the men unsuccessfully argued that their sixth amendment rights had been violated because the jury was not deciding the issue of guilt.

Key Ideas

  • Sixth Amendment – while not specific on sentencing, the Sixth Amendment expresses clearly the right of an accused person to have a trial by an impartial jury. Future court cases determined what exactly the roles of the jury and the judge were but, constitutionally speaking, the trial is supposed to happen “by the jury.”
  • Statutory Maximum – the maximum sentence a judge may assign to a defendant for a crime for which he/she has been convicted.
  • Due Process Clause, 14th Amendment – simply stated but highly debated, the Due Process Clause states that “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” Due Process essentially means fairness under the law.
  • Apprendi v. New Jersey – in this 2000 case, the Court decided in a 5-4 vote that the Due Process Clause (mentioned above) requires submitting any fact that would increase the sentence above the statutory maximum to a jury and then the jury proving that fact beyond a reasonable doubt.
    • The problem with citing this case is that the sentences given to the three men were still below the statutory maximum for their crimes but they were undoubtedly Draconian and extreme.
  • Blakely v. Washington – in this 2004 case, the Court decided in a 5-4 vote, along the same lines as Apprendi v. New Jersey, that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury would prevent a fact, other than a prior conviction, necessary to increase a sentence beyond the statutory maximum from being used by judge unless it was proved by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Cunningham v. California (2007) is another case, like Blakely and Apprendi, that affirmed this idea.
  • United States v. Booker – in this 2005 case, the Court decided in a 5-4 vote that U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, when used a couple of cases, were unconstitutional because they allowed judges to enhance sentences using facts not reviewed by juries. The court also found that the Sentencing Guidelines were now advisory, not mandatory.
  • Rita v. United States – in this 2007 case, the Court decided in a 8-1 vote that sentences created with the Sentencing Guidelines ruled on in Booker had an inherent presumption of reasonableness. The Court expressed they were ruling narrowly, demonstrating the problems that Booker has caused for sixth amendment cases. In a context more closely aligned with Jones, the Court found that a sentence above the statutory maximum for an offense requires a verdict of guilty by trial, but a sentence below the statutory maximum could be based on related conduct found by the judge. This wouldn’t have doomed the Jones case to failure because in Jones, the defendants were acquitted for the crime for which they were sentenced. Acquitted conduct is a realm that the Court decided to avoid in Rita v. United States.


As its term progresses, the Supreme Court chooses from a list of petitions submitted to them to grant a writ of certiorari, to hear the case, and denies much, much more. To hear oral arguments for a case, four judges must vote to grant “cert.”

Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court, six to three, denied cert to Jones v. United States (petition here). The Supreme Court usually does not give explanations for their denials but this case was a rarity: Justice Scalia actually wrote a dissent. Scalia was joined by Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While this is seemingly a rare combination of justices, the three share an absolutist, principles-based view of criminal defendant rights, rather than a pragmatic view that the six other judges hold.

Scalia’s dissent notes that the Supreme Court has been waiting for a case on this issue for a long time and this was that case. “This has gone on long enough,” Scalia writes. Scalia notes that this is an interesting case that asks a relevant question, making it worthy of review.

This decision was really close. Probably the closest it could have ever been: not only was the Court one vote away from granting cert, the fact that Scalia wrote a strongly-worded dissent shows how opinionated and passionate about the issue the dissenting justices were. However, as Will Baude notes in his blog post at the Volokh Conspiracy, the fact that Scalia wrote a dissent and the case was still not granted cert probably indicates similar cases won’t be taken up any point soon because the justices likely saw and read the dissent before they denied cert yet it still didn’t change their minds.

Criticism of Justices Kagan and Sotomayor was particularly strong and legal thought points to two general explanations for their dissent:

First, according to University of Illinois Law Professor Margareth Etienne in this blog post, the two denied review likely because it was “too easy” of a case. That is to say, the acquittal of the charge presents a situation that is fundamentally different from normal cases – usually what happens is that the unjustly sentenced crime was or wasn’t charged or wasn’t a part of the plea agreement (in other words, it wasn’t really part of the case rather than a fundamental part of the case).

Second, according to Ohio State University Law Professor Doug Berman in this blog post, Kagan and Sotomayor chose to deny review to potentially avoid giving a “black eye” to the sixth amendment and the Supreme Court. In other words, they were concerned that taking this case would lead to ruling in favor of the judge, thereby destroying sixth amendment rights and the reputation of the Court. Of course, the justices would be the ones ultimately making the decision in the case that would control sixth amendment rights but who I am to speak?

When the Supreme Court denies review of a case, it not only means it will not hear it, but, in effect, lower appeals courts can ignore the petitioner. In other words, appeals courts have taken the previous denials of cases of this nature to mean that it is constitutional for a court to issue a sentence that would be unreasonable without a fact found by the judge and they have continued the practice.

The fate of the Sixth Amendment is unsure, but it certainly doesn’t help that the Court also denied review of Dunlap v. Idaho, another Sixth Amendment case.

I’ll end with a quote from Scalia’s dissent (italics by Scalia):

It unavoidably follows that any fact necessary to prevent a sentence from being substantively unreasonable—thereby exposing the defendant to the longer sentence—is an element that must be either admitted by the defendant or found by the jury. It may not be found by a judge.


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