SCOTUS to Revisit Harris?

United States v. O’Brien and Burgess, Supreme Court No. 08-1569 presents the question of whether the mandatory minimum sentence enhancement under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) to a 30-year minimum when the firearm is a machinegun is an element of the offense that must be charged and proved to a jury beyond under Apprendi. Professor Kevin Reitz has argued that this case may signify the end of the Harris rule in the Supreme Court. He wrote:


U.S. v. O’Brien gives the Court the chance to reconsider Harris v. U.S., 536 U.S. 545 (2002), which held that the Apprendi rule doesn’t attach to factfinding at sentencing that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence without increasing the available maximum penalty.  It would certainly be big news if the Court were to overrule Harris.  The Solicitor General’s office doesn’t expect this to happen (otherwise they wouldn’t have filed for cert).  Counting votes, however, it’s hard to call. 


Three dissenters in Harris remain on the Court: Stevens, Thomas, and Ginsburg.   Breyer’s concurring vote in Harris was wobbly — the rationale was that he could not “yet accept” the Apprendi rule.  If “yet” has now arrived, we may have four votes to overrule Harris.   Roberts, Alito, and Sotomayor are not clearly on record.  Sotomayor might well be a 5th vote?  Stare decisis counts for something here.  Harris reaffirmed an earlier case against a fully-developed Apprendi challenge, so a 180-degree turn in O’Brien would be dramatic.  Still, from a policy view, once Apprendi and Blakely and Booker are the law, it would be nice to eliminate Harris’s mandatory minimum end-run around those cases.

The Blakely issue may not be dead in Michigan. This may have a particular impact on Michigan’s version of Jessica’s Law. Stay tuned!