Apprendi in the States: The Virtues of Federalism as a Structural Limit on Errors

13 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2003

See all articles by Stephanos Bibas

Stephanos Bibas

University of Pennsylvania Law School


In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Supreme Court of the U.S. required, at a minimum, that juries find beyond a reasonable doubt any fact that increases a defendant's statutory maximum sentence. This watershed decision broke sharply with two centuries of judicial discretion to find facts at sentencing under lower standards of proof.

Apprendi left open large questions about its scope: would it change indictment and plea procedure? Would it be retroactive? Would Apprendi errors be harmless? Would Apprendi invalidate judicial mandatory minimum sentences or sentencing guidelines? Over the last three years, state courts have struggled to answer these questions. And they have by and large reached an unusual consensus: Apprendi should extend no further than its narrow holding requires, limiting only facts that raise statutory maximum sentences. This piece canvasses this development and asks why it developed this way.

State courts have limited Apprendi not simply because they follow the Supreme Court in lock step or because they are mindless bastions of conservatism. The underlying lesson is that the state courts saw Apprendi's errors and reacted to limit them. They remained faithful to Apprendi's core holding, but they brought their practical experience to bear in damage control by extending it no further. A consensus developed that Apprendi was wrongly decided and should go no further than it must. This brings out a new point about federalism. States are often praised as laboratories of experimentation, going beyond federal minima. But here the process worked well in reverse: the Supreme Court went too far, and the states broke the expansion of what they rightly saw as a disruptive mistake. The moral of the story is that state courts are valuable participants in our cooperative federalism of criminal procedure as much for what they refrain from doing as for what they do.

Keywords: Apprendi, federalism, reasonable doubt, jury trial, state courts

JEL Classification: K14, K40

Suggested Citation

Bibas, Stephanos, Apprendi in the States: The Virtues of Federalism as a Structural Limit on Errors. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 93, No. 4, October 2003, Available at SSRN: or

Stephanos Bibas (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-746-2297 (Phone)


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