In terms of criminal law, juries are considered the "finders of fact," while judges are generally considered to be in charge of applying the applicable law to the findings the jury has made. In cases where there is no jury, the judge is both the finder of fact and the applier of the law.
In criminal cases, the government is required to prove, to the finder of fact, every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt -- and the Supreme Court has previously held that the same rule applies to elements of sentencing enhancements that would increase the sentence beyond the statutory maximum penalty for the crime in question.
Until now, however, it was unclear whether sentencing factors had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in cases where those factors would result in a statutory minimum sentence. In 2002, the high court said no, but that case has been highly criticized. The idea was that mandatory minimum sentences are virtually always lower than what a judge could order, so no harm would be done if the sentencing factors were proved to a lower standard (more likely than not).
This week, the court ordered some major changes. It essentially overruled its 2002 case and held that all factors that negatively impact treatment of the defendant must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Otherwise, the court said, sentencing enhancements could violate the defendant's rights under the Sixth Amendment.
The case involved a Virginia man who was charged in federal court with "robbery affecting interstate commerce" and "using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence." Under federal law, whether someone convicted of that firearm charge receives a five-year or seven-year mandatory minimum sentence depends in part on whether the accused was found to have merely used a weapon or "brandished" it.
Upon convicting the Virginia man, the jury found he had used the weapon but made no finding on whether he had brandished it. The judge therefore took it upon himself to act as the fact finder in that instance and determined that the accused had brandished the weapon. He was given the seven-year sentence.
The Supreme Court reversed and sent the sentencing portion of the case back to be re-determined by a jury. That jury, it said, must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. The difference between this and the 2002 case appears to be that the sentencing enhancement actually did increase the defendant's sentence -- it wasn't a "no harm done" situation.
The ruling was welcomed by the criminal bar as clarifying or overruling the confusing 2002 case, and should be applauded as a significant reaffirmation of criminal defendants' Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial and sentencing.