Blakely v. Washington

PETITIONER: Ralph Howard Blakely, Jr.
RESPONDENT: Washington
LOCATION: Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 02-1632
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Washington Supreme Court

CITATION: 542 US 296 (2004)
GRANTED: Oct 20, 2003
ARGUED: Mar 23, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 24, 2004

Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben - argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance
Jeffrey L. Fisher - argued the cause for Petitioner
John Knodell, III - argued the cause for Respondent
John D. Knodell III - argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent
Michael R. Dreeben - argued the cause for Respondent, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

Blakely pleaded guilty to the kidnapping of his estranged wife and the facts admitted in his plea supported a maximum sentence of 53 months. Washington state law allows a judge to impose a sentence above the standard range if he finds "substantial and compelling reasons" for doing so that were not computed into the standard range sentence. The judge in this case imposed an "exceptional" sentence of 90 months after determining Blakely had acted with "deliberate cruelty."

Blakely appealed, arguing that this sentencing procedure deprived him of his federal Sixth Amendment right to have a jury determine beyond a reasonable doubt all facts legally essential to his sentence. A state appellate court affirmed the sentence and the state supreme court denied review.


Does a fact (other than a prior conviction) necessary to increase a sentence beyond the statutory standard range need to be proved by a jury and beyond a reasonable doubt?

Media for Blakely v. Washington

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 2004 in Blakely v. Washington

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 24, 2004 in Blakely v. Washington

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

The first case is No. 02-1632, Blakely versus Washington.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Washington State Court of Appeals.

The petitioner Ralph Howard Blakely, Jr., kidnapped his estranged wife and her son from their orchard home in Grant County, Washington.

He drove her to a friend’s home in Montana where he was finally arrested the next day after the friend called the police.

The State of Washington brought criminal charges against him and he agreed to plead guilty to the reduced charge of second degree kidnapping with a firearm.

Washington’s Sentencing Reform Act specifies a "standard range", that is a statutory term, of 49 to 53 months imprisonment for that offense of second degree kidnapping with a firearm.

The Act allows a judge however, to depart upward from that standard range to a maximum of 10 years if he finds exceptional circumstances.

In this case, the judge departed upward and imposed an exceptional sentence of 90 months, more than three years beyond the top of the standard range, after finding that Blakely had committed the offense with deliberate cruelty.

That determination was not based on facts admitted by the defendant but on the judge’s own findings made after a sentencing hearing at which the victim and other witnesses testified.

Blakely argued that his sentence violates his Sixth Amendment right to jury trial because the facts supporting that three year add on were not proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The State Court rejected that argument and we granted certiorari.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we conclude that the 90 months exceptional sentence was unconstitutionally imposed.

The Sixth Amendment provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.”

In a case decided four years ago, Apprendi versus New Jersey, we held that “other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Blakely’s sentence violated this principle because he was sentenced to more than three additional years in prison based on a finding of deliberate cruelty that was neither found by a jury nor admitted in his guilty plea.

The State argues that Blakely’s sentence is valid because even though it was above the standard range, it was still below the overall statutory maximum of 10 years.

We conclude however that the relevant statutory maximum for purposes of the Aprendy case is the maximum a judge may impose based solely on the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant.

Here, the judge could not have imposed the 90 months sentence based solely on the guilty plea because Washington law requires an exceptional sentence to be based on factors other than those used in computing the standard range of sentence.

The right to jury trial is fundamental in our constitution.

The Sixth Amendment requires that every fact which the law makes essential to the punishment be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

Without that restriction, the law could be drawn in such a manner that a judge could sentence a man for committing murder even if the jury convicted him of only illegally possessing the firearm that he used to commit it, or of making any illegal lane change while fleeing the death scene, the fact that the murder could be found by the judge.

The dissenters would reject our holding in Apprendi but they provide no alternative test that gives coherent content to the right of jury trial.

They merely say that the judicially prescribed portion of the sentence cannot be excessive.

The tail cannot wag the dog.

This does not seem to us a constitutional or even a feasible criterion.

Our holding does not prohibit determinate sentencing schemes.

It merely requires the facts in those schemes to be found by the jury.

In the present case, for example, instead of having a postconviction trial before the judge which is what occurred, there could have been a postconviction trial before the jury.

This is perhaps not as efficient as judicial fact finding but no one ever claimed that jury trial was efficient.