Cunningham v. California

PETITIONER: John Cunningham
RESPONDENT: California
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 05-6551
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 549 US 270 (2007)
GRANTED: Feb 21, 2006
ARGUED: Oct 11, 2006
DECIDED: Jan 22, 2007

Jeffrey M.K. Laurence - argued the cause for Respondent
Peter Gold - argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

John Cunningham, a former police officer, was convicted of continuous sexual abuse of his young son. Under California's Determinate Sentencing Law, the trial judge can choose between three possible sentences for a given crime: a minimum, medium, and maximum sentence. Judges normally hand down the medium sentence unless there are special circumstances. In Cunningham's case, the judge found six aggravating factors, and sentenced him to the maximum 16-year sentence. However, in determining some of the aggravating factors the judge relied on evidence not considered by the jury.

Cunningham appealed his sentence, arguing that the judge's discretion was a violation of Cunningham's right to a trial by jury. In Blakely v. Washington, the Supreme Court had ruled that for the right to a jury trial to be effective, any fact which increases a sentence "beyond the prescribed statutory maximum" must be proved before the jury. Cunningham argued that the judge can consider only factors determined by the jury when deciding which sentence to impose.

A California Court of Appeal disagreed and upheld the sentence, ruling that the judge had merely handed down the maximum sentence prescribed by the statute. The California Supreme Court denied Cunningham's appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.


Does California's Determinate Sentencing Law violate the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial by permitting judges to impose enhanced sentences based on their determination of facts not found by the jury or admitted by the defendant?

Media for Cunningham v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 11, 2006 in Cunningham v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 22, 2007 in Cunningham v. California

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has the opinion of the court in two cases this morning.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The first case that I have to announce is Cunningham against California, No. 05-6551.

John Cunningham was tried in the California State Court and convicted by a jury of a grade B felony.

Under California’s Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL) Cunningham’s crime was punishable by one of three precise terms of imprisonment, a lower-term sentence of 6 years, a middle-term of 12 years, or an upper-term of 16 years.

The DSL required the trial judge to sentence Cunningham to the 12 year middle-term and nothing more unless the judge found at least one additional fact in aggravation of the event.

The judge found by preponderance of evidence several aggravating facts but only one mitigating fact concluding that the aggravator outweighed the sole mitigator, the judge sentenced Cunningham to the upper term of 16 years.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the harsher sentence.

We reverse that disposition because the four year sentence alleviation based solely on a judge’s fact finding denied Cunningham his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, we held that under the Sixth Amendment any fact other than a prior conviction that exposes a defendant to a sentence above the otherwise applicable statutory maximum must be found by a jury ,not a judge, for other this sentence elevating facts must be established beyond a reasonable doubt not by a mere preponderance of the evidence.

Four years later in Blakely v. Washington we applied the rule stated in Apprendi to the Washington Sentencing Reform Act under that Act the maximum penalty for Blakely’s offense, was 10 years imprisonment but if the trial judge found no facts beyond those reflected in the jury’s verdict Blakely could not receive a sentence above a standard range of 49 to 53 months.

Blakely was sentenced to 90 months imprison based on the judge’s finding of deliberate cruelty.

Applying the rule recognized in Apprendi we held like these sentence unconstitutional.

Last term in United States v. Booker we held the Federal Sentencing Guidelines unconstitutional as a mandatory system.

There was no meaningful distinction we observe between the federal guidelines and the Washington system invalidated in Blakely.

Both systems exposed defendants to greater punishment based solely on facts found by judges not juries.

As a remedy for the Sixth Amendment violation we determine that the federal guideline should remain operative but as advisory only informing but not finding the trial judge.

We also held that sentences imposed under an advisory guidelines regime could be subject to appellate review or reasonableness.

In all material respect, California’s DSL resembles the sentencing systems invalidated in Blakely and Booker because aggravating facts that authorize the upper-term are found by the judge under California system and maybe established by a preponderance of the evidence and assessment less confining then beyond the reasonable doubt.

We hold that the DSL violates the rules stated in Apprendi.

In People v. Black, the California Supreme Court attempted to rescue the DSL’s judicial factfinding authorization by describing the system as imposing only a reasonableness constraint equivalent to the constraint operative in the federal system for Booker.

The reasonableness check the Booker court anticipated however would operates within constitutional constraints delineated in this Court’s precedent and not as a substitute for those constraints.

Because the DSL allocates to judges sole authority to find facts on which the imposition of an upper term sentence turns the system violates the Sixth Amendment.

The remedy prescribed in Booker, in short, is not properly regarded as a recipe for rendering this Court’s Sixth Amendment case law toothless.

As to the adjustment of California sentencing system in light of our ruling the ball lies in California’s court.

Several States have modified their systems in the wake of Apprendi and Blakely to retain determinate sentencing, by calling upon the jury to find any fact necessary to the imposition of an elevated sentence.

Other States have chosen to permit judges genuinely “to exercise broad discretion within a statutory range”, for example a range running from 6-16 years without a mandatory middle.

California may follow the path taken by its sister States or otherwise alter its system, so long as it observes Sixth Amendment limitations declared in this Court’s decisions.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Breyer joins, Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Kennedy and Breyer join.