Supreme Court Notebook

Justices weigh constitutional claim in sentencing delay


WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court considered Monday whether a delay in imposing a prison sentence violates the Constitution's right to a speedy trial.

The justices heard arguments in a case from Montana in which defendant Brandon Betterman waited in jail for 14 months before being sentenced on a bail-jumping charge.

The court seemed concerned about sentencing delays especially because so many criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains instead of trials.

"Most of the action these days takes place in the sentencing phase," Justice Elena Kagan said.

The court has never before extended the right to a speedy trial that is part of the Sixth Amendment to the sentencing phase of a case.

Some justices suggested that sentencing delays would be better handled under the Constitution's due process clause that protects people's rights in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fred Rowley Jr., Betterman's lawyer, urged the court to find a violation of his client's right to a speedy trial because the criminal proceeding continues through sentencing. A defendant might be delayed from starting drug treatment and suffer a setback in his rehabilitation, Rowley said.

But Montana Solicitor General Dale Schowengerdt said once a defendant has been convicted, either in a trial or through a guilty plea, the speedy trial right no longer applies. Betterman waited nine months before he even raised concerns about the delay, Schowengerdt said.

Betterman also eventually started a rehabilitation program after he was paroled from prison, but quit it just 16 days later, Schowengerdt said. "So parole was rescinded," he said.

In 2011, Betterman failed to appear in court in Butte, Montana, on a domestic violence charge. He was sentenced to five years in prison on the domestic violence charge, and he pleaded guilty to the separate charge of jumping bail in April 2012.

The delays included waiting for completion of a pre-sentencing investigation report, then a further holdup when he tried to get the charge against him dismissed because of the time it was taking to sentence him.

Betterman was finally sentenced to seven years on the bail-jumping charge in June 2013. He said he should have been eligible for conditional release for the domestic violence conviction by then, but he wasn't yet in the prison system. He also couldn't complete other requirements of his domestic violence sentence, such as counseling, and the delay had caused him anxiety and depression, he said.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled against him, reversing its own 2006 decision that said sentencing was included in the right to a speedy trial.


Garland holding first meeting with GOP senator, Kirk of IL


WASHINGTON (AP) - Merrick Garland was set to meet Tuesday with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, marking the Supreme Court nominee's first courtesy call on a senator whose party leaders have vowed to hold no hearings or vote until a new president is chosen.

Kirk, who represents Democratic-leaning Illinois, is perhaps the most endangered Senate Republican facing re-election in November. And when it comes to the battle over President Barack Obama's pick to fill the court vacancy, Kirk has been an outlier.

He's one of just three Senate Republicans to say the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold hearings on Garland. And he's one of two GOP senators - along with Susan Collins, R-Maine - to say the full chamber should vote on the nominee.

Earlier this month, Kirk said on a Chicago radio program that the Senate should "man up and cast a vote."

Democrats have been insisting that the Senate go through the regular confirmation process for Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. With most public opinion polls showing majorities favoring action on Garland, Democrats' goal is to force GOP senators to buckle under pressure or make some of them facing re-election this fall pay the price on Election Day.

At least 13 Senate Republicans have said they'd be willing to meet with the federal judge.

Garland has met with seven Democratic senators.

Published: Wed, Mar 30, 2016


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