Tenth Circuit Court opens session at University of Oklahoma

Tuesday, March 8th 2005, 5:53 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Law students and professors gathered in a skybox of an University of Oklahoma College of Law courtroom watched history in the making Monday as all 12 judges of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from two of the 60 cases they will preside over this week in Oklahoma.

It's common practice for about three judges to conduct hearings in the six states within the cuort's jurisdiction, but seldom do all 12 assemble together, said Rob Ramana, law clerk for Judge Robert Henry.

``This is pretty rare,'' he said. ``They only do this about two or three times a year, and that's at the courthouse in Denver.''

The two hearings on cases out of New Mexico also provided attendees with a link to one of the most controversial issues in courts across the nation.

About 20 years ago, Congress enacted federal guidelines that made it mandatory for judges to give criminals a range of possible punishments, without much room for wavering.

But in a Jan. 12 ruling, the Supreme Court declared that making the guidelines mandatory violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because the judge, not a jury, makes decisions that affect the defendant's prison time. Now, the guidelines are only advisory, and criminals everywhere are filing for reduced sentences.

Heard on Monday was the case of Sergio Gonzalez-Huerta, who was convicted of illegally re-entering the U.S. after being convicted of a felony. He wants his sentence of four years and nine months to be thrown out.

In the case of Gerald Yazzie, Yazzie pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a child and was sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison. The judge added more time to the sentence because the child was in Yazzie's care.

In both cases, the U.S. Department of Justice argued that the courts have to be selective when choosing which cases to remand, otherwise the courts will continue to be flooded with appeals from cases that date back as late as the 1980s.

The public defenders, however, contended that the courts should honor the appeals because some criminals may have had the opportunity to receive lesser sentences if not for the once mandatory guidelines.

Amy Stephens, a first-year law student at OU, said it was exciting to see the arguments and the judges.

``We spend so much time in the classroom,'' she said. ``It was so neat to actually see the court active and in real time. We were lucky to have had them here. And, I'm glad we had the facility to do it.''

A panel of judges will also visit Oklahoma City University and University of Tulsa this week.