Gorsuch joins liberal justices in ruling against federal criminal statute

Supreme Court Justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchJanuary reminds us why courts matter — and the dangers of 'Trump judges' Planned Parenthood launches M campaign to back Democrats in 2020 Appeals court appears wary of letting Trump reinstate death sentences 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 GinsburgSupreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools Equal Rights Amendment will replace equality with enforced sameness SCOTUS 'TRAP law' case and the erosion of abortion rights MORE, Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorSupreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools Justice Roberts neglects his own role in tilting American democracy Turley: Testifying for Republicans should not be a sin for academics MORE and Elena KaganElena KaganSupreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools Buttigieg, Klobuchar lay out criteria for potential judicial nominees Welcome to third-world democracy and impeachment MORE. Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerJustices grapple with 'Bridgegate' convictions The Trumpification of the federal courts Justices grapple with multibillion-dollar ObamaCare case 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 AlitoSupreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools Appeals court appears wary of letting Trump reinstate death sentences Justices grapple with 'Bridgegate' convictions MORE, Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasAnita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sanders campaign official: Biden 'actively courted pro-segregation senators' to block black students from white schools Electability is key to Democrats' 2020 fortunes MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCollins walks impeachment tightrope Supreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools How Citizens United altered America's political landscape 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.