The Pendulum Swings (Is Pulled) Back to the Courts from the Legislature

The Pennsylvania courts are taking back control of criminal sentencing procedures.  Beginning in October 2014 the Pennsylvania Superior Court began chipping away at legislative mandated mandatory minimum sentences. This was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstating federal district courts’ sentencing authority in two separate be equally important ways.

Back in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. Booker, ruled all sentencing guideline provisions to be advisory and not mandatory. This reinstated federal judicial discretion in federal court sentencing decisions.  Thereafter, in U.S. Alleyne, http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CDAQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.supremecourt.gov%2Fopinions%2F12pdf%2F11-9335_b8cf.pdf&ei=Xv7MVPPePMXnsASVroKwAw&usg=AFQjCNGBcIFt4QaQ10fN-3DaztBuSJhlTg&sig2=4Td1NwsMAG0TbwfkXkvnEA&bvm=bv.85076809,d.cWc&cad=rja, the Supreme Court determined that state legislative mandatory minimum sentences were unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment due process provisions because the provisions allowed judges to increase a defendant’s potential jail sentence based upon facts not considered by a jury.

Following these two constitutionally instructive decisions, Pennsylvania Superior Court began reasserting it’s judicial authority. In two separate cases in which defendants appealed their drug conviction mandatory minimum sentencing based upon Alleyne. Superior Court agreed Defendants’ arguments regarding the illegality of their sentences, finding Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing procedures unconstitutional because they allowed judges to sentence a defendant to increased jail time (the mandatory minimum sentence) based upon facts not decided by a jury.  Pennsylvania’s Superior and Supreme Court, rejecting the appeals, determined that Pennsylvania legislature did not have the authority tell judges to engage in such conduct under the federal Constitution. The courts took back their authority by ruling the legislature could not tell a judge the minimum amount of time it had to sentence a defendant to jail under certain fact patterns.

In the fall of 2014, Superior Court reviewed the legislature’s ability to unilaterally alter a convicted felon’s sex offender registration scheme by amending the registration scheme statute in effect at the time of the plea agreement.  Superior Court in Commonwealth v. Hainesworth and Nase ruled the legislature could not engage in this conduct. These cases represent the courts chipping away at legislative intrusion into judicial sentencing prerogative in the context of Megan’s Law registration requirements for sex offenders. In these cases, the courts determine that the guilty plea agreement, a contract, precluded the legislature from unilaterally altering a defendant’s registration characterization and reporting responsibilities.

Finally, on December 28, 2014 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s Megan’s law as its applied to juveniles. The Supreme Court held that Megan’s law in its entirety, as it is applied to juveniles, was inconsistent with the rehabilitative nature of juvenile court, and, thereafter unconstitutional as to all juvenile offenders. The Supreme Court reasserted the importance of its sentencing decisions, and not legislative prerogatives, in determining the correct goal of juvenile adjudications and the juvenile court process is rehabilitation, not life time punishment required by SORNA’s juvenile life time registration requirements.

These cases focus on the judiciary as the primary arbiter of sentencing procedures it may compel against a convicted felon. Importantly, the pendulum is beginning to swing back (because the judiciary is pulling it back) in both federal and state courts towards judicial discretion and against legislative mandated procedures. The Courts are beginning to realize that every defendant is different and a one-size-fits-all sentencing procedure’s are inappropriate in many cases.

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