The case, Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457, concerned Brandon T. Betterman, who pleaded guilty to jumping bail in the spring of 2012. He spent the next 14 months in a Montana jail waiting to hear what his sentence would be.
He complained to the judge, saying the delay had put him on an “emotional roller coaster due to the anxiety and depression caused by the uncertainty.” In the summer of 2013, the judge finally sentenced him to seven years in prison, with four years suspended.
The long delay, Mr. Betterman said, had violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, rejected the argument. There is a difference between trials, which adjudicate guilt, and sentencings, which determine punishment, she wrote.
“As a measure protecting the presumptively innocent, the speedy trial right — like other similarly aimed measures — loses force upon conviction,” Justice Ginsburg said.
She added that “the sole remedy for a violation of the speedy trial right” is dismissal of the charges, which “would be an unjustified windfall, in most cases, to remedy sentencing delay by vacating validly obtained convictions.” The empty seat left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death leaves the court with two basic options for cases left on the docket this term if the justices are deadlocked at 4 to 4.
Mr. Betterman had not sought outright dismissal of the case against him, suggesting instead that an appropriate remedy for the 14-month delay in his sentencing would be an equivalent reduction in his prison term. Justice Ginsburg rejected the possibility of “a flexible or tailored remedy.” A violation of the right to a speedy trial, she said, “demands termination of the prosecution.”
Nor did it matter, she wrote, that a vast majority of criminal prosecutions these days end with guilty pleas rather than trials, making sentencing proceedings more important. That “modern reality,” she wrote, “does not bear on the presumption-of-innocence protection at the heart of the Speedy Trial Clause.”
Justice Ginsburg did say that capital cases, in which the sentencing phase is often elaborate and crucial, may require a different speedy-trial analysis.
The court left open a different avenue to attack long sentencing delays.
Mr. Betterman, Justice Ginsburg wrote, “retains an interest in a sentencing proceeding that is fundamentally fair.” It was possible, she said, that he could have attacked the delay in his case as a violation of a different constitutional right, that of due process.
“But because Betterman advanced no due process claim here,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “we express no opinion on how he might fare under that more pliable standard.”
In a concurrence, Justice Sonia Sotomayor sketched out a possible framework for deciding whether sentencing delays violate due process. In a second concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said that was premature.
“We have never decided whether the Due Process Clause creates an entitlement to a reasonably prompt sentencing hearing,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Today’s opinion leaves us free to decide the proper analytical framework to analyze such claims if and when the issue is properly before us.”