The Apprendi decision was subsequently cited as precedent by the court in its consideration of Ring v. Arizona, which struck down Arizona's judge-only method of imposing the death penalty, and also in Blakely v. Washington, which ruled that mandatory state sentencing guidelines are the statutory maximum for purposes of applying the Apprendi rule.
Later, Apprendi pleaded guilty to weapons possession charges. Each of these counts carried a sentence of between 5 and 10 years in prison. As part of the plea bargain, the prosecution reserved the right to seek an enhanced sentence on the basis that the crime was committed with a biased purpose. Such an enhancement would have doubled the sentence otherwise imposed for each of the crimes. Apprendi, in turn, reserved the right to challenge the bias crime enhancement violated the federal Constitution.
The trial judge accepted Apprendi's plea. At a later hearing, he heard testimony from Apprendi himself as well as from psychologists stating that the shooting was not motivated by racial hatred but instead was the result of intoxication. The policeman testified at this hearing that Apprendi's motivation was racial animus. The trial judge found "by a preponderance of the evidence" that Apprendi's crime was motivated by the race of the victims. He sentenced Apprendi to 12 years in prison—2 years above the maximum sentence authorized for the weapons charge apart from the race enhancement.
Apprendi appealed. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed the enhancement on the grounds that it was a "sentencing factor" rather than an "element" of the crime, and therefore not subject to the jury-trial and proof-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt requirements of the Constitution. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with this conclusion, and also affirmed Apprendi's sentence. Apprendi's lawyer,Joseph D. O'Neill, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, and it agreed to do so.
Under the Constitution, due process gives criminal defendants two interdependent procedural safeguards with respect to the manner in which the sentence is determined. The first of these is the jury trial, a "guard against a spirit of oppression and tyranny on the part of the rulers" and "the great bulwark of our civil and political liberties," whereby "the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should afterwards be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of the defendant's equals and neighbors." The second is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the historical "measure of persuasion by which the prosecution must convince the trier of all the essential elements of guilt." There was historically no distinction between an "element" of a crime and a "sentencing factor" because the trial judge had very little discretion at sentencing, because most crimes had a specific sentence attached to them.
Justice Thomas explained how the original understanding of the jury-trial requirement supported the Court's ruling. He also argued that the jury-trial requirement applied to both mandatory minimum sentences and the findings of prior convictions used to enhance sentences. To make this argument, Justice Thomas had to repudiate his prior support for the prior conviction exception crafted in Almendarez-Torres v. United States, . "What matters is the way by which a fact enters into the sentence." Even though a prior conviction may be valid because it entailed its own jury trial, the fact that that prior conviction was being used to enhance a new sentence meant that that fact must be submitted to a jury again.
Before the death of William Rehnquist and the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor, this view commanded a majority of the Court. Many are hopeful that if the Roberts Court were directly faced with the question, it might extend Apprendi's jury-trial requirement to the fact of a prior conviction as well.
With the decision in In re Winship in 1970, the Court expressly said for the first time that due process demands from the government proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every element of a crime. Thus, the Court held that a state court not force a defendant to prove he did not act with malice aforethought in order to avoid a murder conviction, as in Mullaney v. Wilbur, . Criminal law "is concerned not only with guilt or innocence in the abstract, but also with the degree of criminal culpability assessed" in the defendant. Thus, redefining the elements of murder to make the level of intent required bear on punishment was not an appropriate method for avoiding the reasonable-doubt requirement of the Constitution.
It was not until 1986, in McMillan v. Pennsylvania, , that the Court first coined the term "sentencing factor." A "sentencing factor" is a fact not found by a jury that nevertheless affected the sentence imposed by a judge. In McMillan, a state statute required a 5-year minimum sentence for anyone who visibly possessed a firearm during certain crimes. Imposing a mandatory minimum sentence based on this factual finding did not violate the reasonable-doubt requirement because it merely limited the discretion of the sentencing court rather than increased the maximum sentence available to the judge by virtue of the finding.
Because the hate-crime enhancement increased the punishment available to the sentencing judge instead of raising the floor on the sentencing range as a mandatory minimum would, the Court would not allow the hate-crime enhancement to escape the constitutional protections. The reason for criminal activity requires an inquiry into the defendant's motive, a traditional arena of criminal examination. Punishing a person for this specific bad intent has historically been the province of the criminal law, and historically required certain procedural safeguards. Merely labelling the hate-crime enhancement as a "sentencing factor" could not allow New Jersey to escape constitutional requirements.
Furthermore, Justice O'Connor disputed that the Court's modern cases dictated the result. Although the Court in Mullaney v. Wilbur, , may have ruled that the jury-trial and reasonable-doubt requirements applied to the facts that dictated the degree of homicide crime the defendant had committed, and thus the level of punishment to which he was subject, two years later, in Patterson v. New York, , the Court ruled that a state could place on defendants the burden of proving affirmative defenses, such as extreme emotional disturbance. Patterson, for Justice O'Connor, repudiated the general principle that facts bearing on the degree of punishment must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, McMillan v. Pennsylvania, , was not relevant to the Court's rule because McMillan involved a mandatory minimum punishment, rather than a maximum sentence.
Finally, Justice O'Connor warned that the Court's decision did not square with Walton v. Arizona, , in which the Court had ruled that the jury-trial requirement expressly did not apply to the aggravating factors required under Arizona law to impose a death sentence. As Justice O'Connor observed, a judge in Arizona could not impose a death sentence without a finding that one of the aggravating factors applied. Under the rule the majority adopted, that finding would have to be made by a jury, yet O'Connor found the majority's attempt to distinguish Arizona's death penalty to be "baffling." Two years later, in Ring v. Arizona, , Justice O'Connor's view about Arizona's death penalty scheme would prevail. O'Connor also predicted that the Apprendi decision would give rise to serious constitutional doubt in the federal sentencing scheme. In 2005's United States v. Booker, , this prediction also came to pass.
Justice Breyer complained that the "real world of criminal justice" would not be able to meet the "ideal" of submitting to juries facts that subject criminal defendants to increased punishments. Fixing certain punishments for all defendants convicted of the same offense would ignore specific harms committed by different defendants as well as certain characteristics of individual defendants. "There are, to put it simply, far too many relevant sentencing factors to permit submission of all (or even many) of them to a jury." Because this was a premise upon which the Federal Sentencing Guidelines rested, Justice Breyer dissented from the majority's opinion. Yet his opinion for the majority in United States v. Booker, in which he crafted the remedy of severance and excision of the mandatory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, meant that Breyer ultimately prevailed in the sentencing battle, even if he had momentarily lost the constitutional war in Apprendi.