Gorsuch joins liberal justices in ruling against federal criminal statute

Supreme Court Justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchNo reason to pack the court Democrats under new pressure to break voting rights stalemate Trump 'very disappointed' in Kavanaugh votes: 'Where would he be without me?' 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.
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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 GinsburgAbortion rights face most difficult test yet at Supreme Court Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade 10 books that take readers inside the lives of American leaders MORE, Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorSenate panel votes to make women register for draft No reason to pack the court Supreme Court ruling opens door to more campaign finance challenges MORE and Elena KaganElena KaganNo reason to pack the court American freedom is on the line Supreme Court deals blow to Black Caucus voting rights efforts MORE. Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerSenate panel votes to make women register for draft Biden's belated filibuster decision: A pretense of principle at work Klobuchar: If Breyer is going to retire from Supreme Court, it should be sooner rather than later 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 AlitoNo reason to pack the court Justice or just desserts? Trump, Cosby and Georgia cases show rising cost of political litigation House Democrats introduce bill restoring voting provision after SCOTUS ruling MORE, Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasOvernight Health Care: St. Louis reimposes mask mandate | Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry No reason to pack the court MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughKavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law On The Money: Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' | Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag Christine Blasey Ford's lawyers blast FBI's Kavanaugh investigation as 'sham' 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.