By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday extended more lenient penalties of a new law for crack and powder cocaine to criminals convicted but not yet sentenced when the law took effect, a ruling that could affect thousands of defendants.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled for two men convicted of crack cocaine crimes, but sentenced after the 2010 measure became law. Congress changed the law due to concerns that the longer prison terms were racially biased and unfair.
The Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Barack Obama on August 3, 2010, sharply reduced the difference between sentences for crimes committed by crack cocaine users, who tend to be black, and powder cocaine users, who tend to be white.
The disparity was reduced to about an 18-to-1 ratio, compared with the prior law which treated 100 grams of powder cocaine as the equivalent of one gram of crack cocaine, or a 100-to-1 ratio.
Justice Department attorneys told the Supreme Court the issue at the heart of the case could potentially affect thousands of defendants, not just the two involved in the ruling.
One of the two, Edward Dorsey, pleaded guilty in June 2010 to possessing 5.5 grams of crack cocaine in 2008 with intent to distribute it and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Under the 2010 law, he probably would have received a sentence of about four years.
In the other case, Corey Hill was convicted in 2009 of selling 53 grams of crack cocaine in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Under the 2010 law, he would have received a sentence of around five years.
U.S. appeals courts have been divided on how to apply the law. An appeals court in Chicago in the case involving the two men ruled that the law applied only to crimes committed after August 3, 2010. The Supreme Court reversed that decision.
Writing the court's majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said Congress intended the law's more lenient penalties to apply to offenders who committed their crimes before August 3, 2010, but were sentenced after that date.
The U.S. Justice Department initially took the position that the new sentences only applied to crimes committed after Aug 3, 2010.
But after Democratic lawmakers in Congress complained, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a memo issued on July 15, 2011, said the law should apply to all sentences handed down after August 3, 2010, regardless of when the crime had been committed.
In the opinion, Breyer said applying the more lenient penalties to all those sentenced after August 3, 2010, made it possible to foresee a reasonably smooth transition under new federal guidelines calling for lower sentences involving crack cocaine.
He was joined by the court's three other liberals, and moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The court's most conservative members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented.
Scalia wrote that the court majority misinterpreted federal law and added, "The mischief of the court's opinion is not the result in this particular case, but rather the unpredictability it injects into the law for the future."
The Supreme Court cases are Dorsey v. United States, No 11-5683, and Hill v. United States, No. 11-5721.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by David Brunnstrom)