Gorsuch and Alito Lock Horns Over Right to Trial by Jury

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In a 5-4 decision, Justices strike down imposition of criminal sentences sans jury

The U.S. Supreme Court has been on fire lately, striking down a federal law provision which allowed judges the leeway to impose criminal sentences sans a jury. Justice Neil Gorsuch maintained that this provision allowed judges to mete out custodial sentences without a jury which is in violation of the Sixth Amendment; which guarantees a person’s right to trial by a jury. “Only a jury, acting on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, may take a person’s liberty,” Gorsuch opined in United States v. Haymond. “Yet in this case a congressional statute compelled a federal judge to send a man to prison for a minimum of five years without empaneling a jury of his peers or requiring the government to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Andre Haymond, after serving his sentence for possession of child pornography was out on supervised release. The federal judge supervising his release terms sentenced him mandatory minimum of five year – the move was triggered after additional pornographic imagery, including obscene imagery of children, were found on Haymond’s person and devices. Haymond challenged his sentencing arguing it violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, with Justice Stephen Breyer concurred with his argument, thus, voting in favor of Haymond.

“The Constitution seeks to safeguard the people’s control over the business of judicial punishments by ensuring that any accusation triggering a new and additional punishment is proven to the satisfaction of a jury beyond a reasonable doubt,”

– Justice Neil Gorsuch

The Court clarified that under the provision in question, “if a judge finds by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant on supervised release committed one of several enumerated offenses, including the possession of child pornography, the judge must impose an additional prison term of at least five years and up to life without regard to the length of the prison term authorized for the defendant’s initial crime of conviction.”

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“The Constitution seeks to safeguard the people’s control over the business of judicial punishments by ensuring that any accusation triggering a new and additional punishment is proven to the satisfaction of a jury beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gorsuch wrote. “By contrast, the view the government and dissent espouse would demote the jury from its historic role as ‘circuit-breaker in the State’s machinery of justice’ to low-level gatekeeping.” Gorsuch stated in his strongly worded understanding of Sixth Amendment protections.

The dissenters accused Gorsuch of destroying the vital notions enshrined in modern criminal justice system, and what’s worse that he did so using protection of a criminal defendant’s rights. Writing in the dissent view Justice Alito, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh stated, “the intimation [… of Gorsuch’s opinion is that] all supervised-release revocation proceedings must be conducted in compliance with the Sixth Amendment,” elaborating further, the continue, “which means that the defendant is entitled to a jury trial, which means that as a practical matter supervised-release revocation proceedings cannot be held.”

“[Gorsuch’s view] is not based on the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment, is irreconcilable with precedent, and sports rhetoric with potentially revolutionary implications.”

– Justice Samuel Alito

Justice Samuel Alito, livid, attacked Gorsuch for an opinion that “is not based on the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment, is irreconcilable with precedent, and sports rhetoric with potentially revolutionary implications.”

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Justices Alito and Gorsuch have been sparring on and off for quite a while now. Their interpretations of criminal justice lead to headbutting – in legalese. In fact, two days prior, Justice Gorsuch joined by the Court’s ‘Democratic’ pool, ruled in favor of a criminal defendant over a strongly worded dissent filed by Kavanaugh, joined by Roberts, Thomas, and Alito.

With every new decision or even the selection of cases picked up by the Supreme Court, the convention of dividing judges into democratic and republican camps if falling apart fast. Perhaps, it’s a reflection of our society at large where, now, these distinctions become blurrier by the day.

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