The price of unanimity on an ideologically divided Court is, as we are learning in Justice Antonin Scalia’s absence, narrow opinions that reserve difficult issues for future consideration. Today in Betterman v. Montana, the Court “confine[d]” its decision to the Sixth Amendment only, ruling that its Speedy Trial Clause “does not apply” to “delayed sentencing” after a defendant has been found guilty by trial or plea.
After this short and simple ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion for the eight-Justice court was littered with limiting footnotes, expressly leaving open a number of related questions that, while not unimportant, are “inside baseball” to the average SCOTUS fan. On the largest unresolved question — how and when courts should apply the Due Process Clauses to “inordinate” or “exorbitant” sentencing delays — Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor each offered two-page concurring opinions expressing different preliminary thoughts.
As you may recall from my prior posts, it took the Butte County District Court fourteen months to sentence Brandon Betterman for bail jumping (after he failed to show up on prior domestic violence charges). After nine months, Betterman asked for a “speedy” sentencing, and claimed that he was suffering various adverse consequences from the delay and his consequent presentencing detention in the county jail, as opposed to the state prison where he would go once sentenced. (In a footnote, the Court is perhaps a bit too dismissive of this concern as “of no constitutional moment,” saying that “a convicted defendant has no right to serve his sentence in the penal institution he prefers.”). Betterman finally received a sentence of seven years, four of which were suspended.
On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court joined a fifteen-court (state and federal) split, ruling that the Sixth Amendment speedy-trial right does not apply to sentencing. That court also ruled the delay in Betterman’s sentencing did not violate any due process norms.
The Court’s Sixth Amendment ruling
Because Betterman “did not preserve a due process challenge” in his certiorari petition, the “sole question” before the U.S. Supreme Court (despite the Montana court’s additional due process ruling) was the Sixth Amendment issue. The Court concluded that all signs pointed toward not applying the speedy-trial guarantee to sentencing, largely because the “presumption of innocence protection,” which is “at the heart of the Speedy Trial Clause,” is extinguished once a defendant is convicted. (The Court quickly noted that “we do not mean to convey” that other provisions of the Sixth Amendment that protect other interests don’t apply to sentencing, for example, “the right to defense counsel” in “some postconviction proceedings.”)
Rory Little, Opinion analysis: “Speedy trial” guarantee does not apply to sentencing, SCOTUSblog (May. 19, 2016, 8:30 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/05/opinion-analysis-speedy-trial-guarantee-does-not-apply-to-sentencing/