A bit of background:
The road to this decision started in 1990 with the case of Walton Vs Arizona, where a convicted murderer's sentence would be life in prison unless a judge found "aggravating factors", in which case he could give him the death penalty. The Judge cited two such factors, that the crime was committed "in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner," and that it was committed for pecuniary gain, and he sentenced Walton to death. Walton appealed and argued that a Judge deciding on the "aggravating factors" violated his 6th Amendment rights. The Supremes disagreed with him: "We thus conclude that the Arizona capital sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment."¹
Then, in 1999, came the case of Jones v. United States where a convicted carjacker, whose maximum sentence would be 15 years, was sentenced to 25 years because a victim was injured in connection with his crime. Jones argued "that serious bodily injury was an element of the offense, which had been neither pleaded in the indictment nor proven before the jury."² Here, the Supremes reversed the lower court's ruling, finding in favor of Jones and setting this principle: ""[U]nder the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the notice and jury trial guarantees of the Sixth Amendment, any fact (other than prior conviction) that increases the maximum penalty for a crime must be charged in an indictment, submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt."³
The last relevant piece of background is Apprendi Vs. New Jersey. The details of this case range too long to fit into this article, but dissenting Judge O'Connor summed up the Supreme's ruling to reverse the lower courts decision like this: "Today, in what will surely be remembered as a watershed change in constitutional law, the Court imposes as a constitutional rule the principle it first identified in Jones." (See ².)
The recent Ring ruling follows the pattern of the Supreme Court continuing to uphold their stance that if you're convicted of a crime, anything that would essentially make your punishment worse than what it is allowed to be by law must be presented to and sentenced by a jury of your peers. This is a victory for due process. The problem with the affected state's system of due process is that after the initial guilty verdict by the jury, any other guilty verdicts that may needed to be decided in conjunction with that case were entrusted to the Judge. This is completely antithetical to the idea of due process, especially when the decision is between life and death.
Judge O'Connor and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissented, complaining that the number of appeals and petitions that will ensue from this ruling are overwhelming. They site that "The number of second or successive habeas corpus petitions filed in the federal courts also increased by 77% in 2001, a phenomenon the Administrative Office of the United States Courts attributes to prisoners bringing Apprendi claims." Attorney General Napolitano (pot) said of the Supreme Court (kettle) that the ruling "just illustrates to me how out of touch they are" (black).
The problem with J. O'Connor's, C.J. Rehnquist's, and A.G. Napolitano's arguments is that they seemingly place the loads of the Court's dockets on a higher priority than they do the lives of people that are filing the petitions. What they fail to understand is that this ruling at best may be the difference between a wrongful death sentence and life in prison. If juries find that even one of these convicts was wrongfully placed on death row, the Supreme Court's decision is automatically validated.
Aside from that, I (as a citizen of Arizona) know that if (heaven forbid) I'm ever standing in a court room defending myself against charges, I will be much more comfortable knowing that if I'm proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, my fate will be decided by my peers instead of just one man with a robe and a gavel.