The ruling, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, "simply recognizes the real-world circumstance that when the judge's discretionary decision accords with the Commission's view . . . it is probable that the sentence is reasonable."
The court's decision in Rita v. U.S. was the latest in a line of cases that have been redefining criminal sentencing since the court ruled in 2000 that the Constitution requires a jury to prove every fact that a judge might use to increase a defendant's sentence.
In 2005, the court ruled that the federal sentencing guidelines - rules designed to ensure that similar crimes be punished similarly across the country - ran afoul of the jury-trial requirement. But it decided that the remedy was to make the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory, as they had been.
The case the court decided yesterday was meant to help define advisory.
Victor Rita, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, asked for a lighter sentence based in part on his past military service. But the judge gave him 33 months, as suggested by the guidelines. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., upheld the sentence, saying that within-guidelines penalties are "presumptively reasonable."
This pattern has been repeated nationwide since the Supreme Court's 2005 ruling.
In that sense, legal analysts said, the court's decision at least left defendants no worse off than they had been.
In his dissent, Justice David H. Souter said that a presumption of reasonableness for within-guidelines sentences creates "gravitational pull" on judges, moving them toward reliance on the guidelines, and making it unclear what was accomplished by declaring the guidelines advisory in the first place.
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed with Breyer, wholly or in part.
In the past, Stevens, Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg have joined Souter in supporting a strong right to a jury trial on all sentencing factors. But their acquiescence in yesterday's ruling appeared to reflect their belief that the court's 2005 decision was entitled to respect as precedent.