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SCOTUS: No Sixth Amendment speedy sentencing right; maybe try due process

Betterman v. Montana, USSC No. 14-1457 (May 19, 2016), affirming State v. Betterman, 342 P.3d 971 (Mont. 2015); SCOTUSblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Brandon Betterman pled guilty to bail jumping, and then spent 14 months in jail before he was finally sentenced. He appealed, contending that the lengthy delay violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The Montana Supreme Court determined that the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee a speedy sentencing, and SCOTUS now agrees.

The majority, authored by Justice Ginsburg, breaks the criminal justice process into three phases: a pre-charging period of investigation; the period between charging and a defendant’s conviction by trial or plea; and the period between conviction and sentencing. (Slip op. at 3). It identifies different “checks against delay” for each phase: statutes of limitation and due process pre-charge; the speedy trial right after charging, and statutes and procedural rules imposing time limits for sentencing after conviction. (Slip op. at 310). The Court further allows that there may be a constitutional limit on delays in sentencing, but not in the Sixth Amendment; rather, “as at the prearrest stage, due process serves as a backstop against exorbitant delay.” (Slip op. at 10). But because Betterman did not argue the delay here denied him due process, the court declines to address what sort of test or standard may apply. (Slip op. at 11).

The heart of the majority’s analysis is textual:

Reflecting the concern that a presumptively innocent person should not languish under an unresolved charge, the Speedy Trial Clause guarantees “the accused” “the right to a speedy . . . trial.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 6 (emphasis added). At the founding, “accused” described a status preceding “convicted.” See, e.g., 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 322 (1769) (commenting on process in which “persons accused of felony . . . were tried . . . and convicted” (emphasis added)). And “trial” meant a discrete episode after which judgment (i.e., sentencing) would follow. See, e.g., id., at 368 (“We are now to consider the next stage of criminal prosecution, after trial and conviction are past . . . : which is that of judgment.”).

(Slip op. at 5).

The majority’s conclusion that the “trial” in “speedy trial” does not encompass sentencing gives short shrift to the historical argument advanced by Betterman (and by NACDL, as amicus): that at the time of the founding, most sentences were specifically prescribed by statute and tied to the crime of conviction. Because the judge had no discretion after a verdict, sentences were typically pronounced immediately; thus to the drafters of the Sixth Amendment a “speedy trial” would necessarily have encompassed a timely “judgment,” i.e. sentence.

The majority also notes that certain bifurcated proceedings, notably in death penalty cases, involve post-trial factfinding that determines the punishment. It declines to decide whether the speedy trial right might apply to such hearings. (Slip op. at 3 n.2).

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, concurs, noting that the Court has never decided whether there is a due process right to a speedy sentencing and asserting that it remains unclear whether one exists. Sotomayor separately concurs, proposing that the four factors announced in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972) (a Sixth Amendment speedy trial case) might provide the proper framework for analysis of any such due process claim.

As noted in our prior post on the cert grant, both the state court of appeals and the Seventh Circuit had found a Sixth Amendment right to a speedy sentencing.  State v. Allen, 179 Wis. 2d 67, 505 N.W.2d 801 (Ct. App. 1993); United States v. Rothrock, 20 F.3d 709, 711 (7th Cir. 1994). So those cases are technically overruled, though it may well be that Allen’s application of the four Barker factors to determine whether a violation has occurred will simply be imported into the analysis under the Due Process clause, as Justice Sotomayor suggests.

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