Gorsuch joins liberal justices in ruling against federal criminal statute

Supreme Court Justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchLoaded poll questions harm civil discourse Grassley to take back Judiciary gavel if GOP keeps Senate in 2020 Brent Budowsky: SCOTUS will affirm US v. Nixon MORE joined with the court's liberal bloc on Wednesday to rule 5-4 against a federal statute, finding it violated a sex offender's constitutional right to a trial by jury.
 
Andre Haymond had previously been convicted of possessing child pornography, and the government discovered that he may have been in possession of the illegal images while he was on supervised release.
 
The judge overseeing his case found a "preponderance of evidence" that Haymond was in possession of the child porn, rather than using the standard of "reasonable doubt." As a result, the judge sentenced Haymond under a federal law that required a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
ADVERTISEMENT
 
A federal appeals court found that while parts of the lower court ruling were incorrect, there was still enough evidence to find that Haymond had possessed the images, in violation of that federal statute.
 
But a divided Supreme Court found Wednesday that the statute violated his right to a trial by jury. Gorsuch wrote that the court does "not hesitate to hold that the statute violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments."
 
"Only a jury, acting on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, may take a person’s liberty. That promise stands as one of the Constitution’s most vital protections against arbitrary government," Gorsuch wrote.
 
"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."
 
Gorsuch was joined on his opinion by Justices Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgJustices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power Loaded poll questions harm civil discourse Clintons tell Ginsburg they struggled to complete 'RBG workout' MORE, Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorJustices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act Justices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power A Border Patrol agent shot their son — will the Hernandez family get their day in court? MORE and Elena KaganElena KaganOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act Justices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power MORE. Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerJustices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act Justices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power Brent Budowsky: SCOTUS will affirm US v. Nixon MORE wrote a concurring opinion against the federal statute.
 
Gorsuch argued that judges have the authority to issue penalties based on juries' findings, and that the judge in Haymond's case should not have able to make the ruling unilaterally.

But he noted that the decision relates solely to the federal statute being challenged by Haymond, meaning that it won't have an extensive impact outside of that law.

In his concurring opinion, Breyer wrote that he agrees "with much of the dissent," particularly the argument that it's typical for a judge to issue decisions like he did in Haymond's case. But he said that he still believed the law to be unconstitutional.

Breyer said that aspects of the statute "more closely resemble the punishment of new criminal offenses, but without granting a defendant the rights, including the jury right, that attend a new criminal prosecution."

Justices Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoJustices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act Justices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power Brent Budowsky: SCOTUS will affirm US v. Nixon MORE, Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Katie Hill calls out a 'double standard' in final floor speech Brent Budowsky: SCOTUS will affirm US v. Nixon MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughDivided Supreme Court leans toward allowing Trump to end DACA Hirono memoir due in 2021 The Hill's Morning Report - Witness transcripts plow ground for public impeachment testimony MORE and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

In the dissenting opinion, Alito wrote he does "not think there is a constitutional basis" for the court's decision, but noted that it's a narrow ruling and will prevent the justices from dealing with the "consequences."

Rather, he argued, the plurality opinion appeared to "have been carefully crafted for the purpose of laying the groundwork for later decisions of much broader scope."

Alito wrote that several passages of Gorsuch's opinion "suggest that the entire system of supervised release, which has been an integral part of the federal criminal justice system for the past 35 years, is fundamentally flawed in ways that cannot be fixed."

And he said that the opinion indicates that each violation of supervised release should be treated as a new criminal prosecution under the Sixth Amendment's right to a jury trial. Alito said that if that's the case, "the whole system of supervised release would be like a 40-ton truck speeding down a steep mountain road with no brakes."

The dissent pushed back against the claim that supervised release should fall under the scope of the Sixth Amendment, with Alito arguing that the defendants in those cases are charged with violating their parole, and not necessarily with new criminal conduct.

"If the court eventually takes the trip that this opinion proposes, the consequences will be far reaching and unfortunate," Alito wrote.
 
—This report was updated at 12:30 p.m.