490 U.S. 858 (1989), 88-5014, Gomez v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 88-5014
Citation:490 U.S. 858, 109 S.Ct. 2237, 104 L.Ed.2d 923, 57 U.S.L.W. 4643
Party Name:Gomez v. United States
Case Date:June 12, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 858

490 U.S. 858 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 2237, 104 L.Ed.2d 923, 57 U.S.L.W. 4643

Gomez

v.

United States

No. 88-5014

United States Supreme Court

June 12, 1989

Argued April 24, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

A Magistrate assigned by the District Judge conducted the voir dire examination and jury selection for petitioners' trial on multiple felony counts. The judge overruled petitioners' objections to the assignment of the Magistrate. The judge offered to review any of the Magistrate's rulings de novo, but petitioners registered no specific challenge to the selection of any juror. After petitioners were convicted and sentenced, they contended on appeal that the Magistrate had no power to conduct the voir dire examination and jury selection, but made no specific claim of prejudice. The Court of Appeals affirmed their convictions, noting that the Federal Magistrates Act permits district courts to assign magistrates certain described powers and duties, as well as "such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." The court held that Congress intended this additional duties clause to be construed broadly enough to include jury selection by magistrates, adding that such a designation does not violate Article III or the Due Process Clause.

Held:

1. Presiding at the selection of a jury in a felony trial without the defendant's consent is not one of the "additional duties" that the Act permits courts to assign to magistrates. Pp. 863-876.

(a) Read literally and without reference to its statutory context, the additional duties clause encompasses any assignment that is not explicitly prohibited by statute or by the Constitution. It is the Court's settled policy, however, to avoid an interpretation of a federal statute that engenders constitutional issues if a reasonable alternative interpretation poses no constitutional question. Thus it is appropriate to examine the Act's overall structure and purpose to determine whether any "additional duties" assigned to a magistrate bear some reasonable relation to the other duties that, because they are specifically enumerated in the Act, define the attributes of the magistrate's office. See, e.g., Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261. Pp. 863-865.

(b) The Act's structure and legislative history demonstrate a congressional intent to limit a magistrate's range of duties in criminal cases

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to: performing certain pretrial and post-trial functions, subject to one of two levels of judicial review depending on the scope and significance of the magistrate's decision; and conducting bench and jury trials on misdemeanor charges, but only upon special assignment by, and subject to the review of, the district court, and only with the consent of the parties. Pp. 865-871.

(c) The absence of a specific reference in the Act or its legislative history to jury selection in felony trials demonstrates that Congress did not intend the additional duties clause to embrace this function. Voir dire in a felony case is a critical stage of the trial. However, the Act's carefully defined grant of authority to magistrates to conduct trials of minor criminal cases must be construed as an explicit withholding of the authority to preside at felony trials. Even assuming that Congress did not consider voir dire to be part of the trial, it is unlikely that it intended to allow a magistrate to conduct jury selection as an "additional duty" not subject to the procedural guidance or judicial review applicable to pretrial matters. In any event, it is doubtful that a district judge could [109 S.Ct. 2239] review the jury selection function meaningfully, since no transcript can recapture the atmosphere of the voir dire. Pp. 871-876.

2. There is no merit to the Government's argument that any error was harmless because petitioners allege no specific prejudice as a result of the Magistrate's conducting the voir dire. Harmless error analysis does not apply in a felony case in which, despite the defendant's objection and without any meaningful review by a district judge, an officer exceeds his jurisdiction by selecting a jury. P. 876.

848 F.2d 1324, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Since its enactment in 1968, the Federal Magistrates Act has permitted district courts to assign magistrates certain described powers and duties, as well as "such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of

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the United States."1 The principal question presented is whether presiding at the selection of a jury in a felony trial without the defendant's consent is among those "additional duties."

I

Petitioners Jose Gomez and Diego Chavez-Tesina were among 11 persons named as defendants in a 21-count indictment alleging commission of multiple felonies, including conspiracy and racketeering, involving distribution of cocaine.2 Having elected to stand trial, petitioners and three codefendants appeared before the Federal Magistrate to whom the District Judge had delegated the task of selecting a jury.3 Defense counsel made timely objections to this assignment. Following a telephone conversation with the District Judge, the Magistrate noted their objections and commenced voir dire. App. 13-16. As is the practice in the Eastern District of New York, the Magistrate, rather than the attorneys, posed questions to the venirepersons.4 The Magistrate also introduced the prospective jurors to the offenses charged; instructed them on numerous points of law, including the presumption of innocence and the different burdens of persuasion in civil and criminal trials; and admonished chosen jurors not to discuss the case with anyone. See generally Tr. of Jury Selection. When defense counsel appeared before the

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District Judge eight days later, they renewed their objections to the Magistrate's role in jury selection. The District Judge overruled the objections, but said he would review any of the Magistrate's rulings de novo. App. 19. Defendants registered no specific challenge to any juror, and trial proceeded; 10 days later, the jury returned [109 S.Ct. 2240] guilty verdicts against all five defendants. Gomez received two concurrent 10-year sentences, to be followed by a special 10-year parole term; Chavez-Tesina was ordered to serve 20 years on one count, with three lesser sentences to run concurrently, and lifetime special parole.

On appeal, defendants made no special claim of prejudice. They contended, as petitioners do before this Court, that the Magistrate had no power to conduct the voir dire examination and jury selection. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals rejected this argument. United States v. Garcia, 848 F.2d 1324 (CA2 1988). The court held that Congress intended the additional duties clause to be construed broadly enough to include jury selection by magistrates. Id. at 1329. Such a designation, the majority added, does not violate Article III or the Due Process Clause of the Federal Constitution. Id. at 1330-1333. The dissenting judge expressed doubts concerning both the majority's statutory interpretation and its constitutional analysis, and concluded that the court should exercise its supervisory powers to forbid delegation of voir dire to magistrates "except, possibly, when the parties consent, and then only pursuant to rules controlling the district court's review."5

The Second Circuit's decision conflicts with the holding of the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Ford, 824 F.2d 1430, 1438 (1987) (en banc), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1034 (1988). The Government had urged the court to construe the additional

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duties clause of the Federal Magistrates Act to allow judges to delegate jury selection in felony trials even without the defendant's consent. That construction would provoke "grave constitutional questions," the en banc majority stated. 824 F.2d at 1430; see id. at 1435. After stressing the importance of jury selection and noting the specificity with which Congress defined magistrates' duties regarding other judicial proceedings, the majority concluded:

Additional duty is a residuum, granting the power to delegate any task not otherwise forbidden after we carve away that congery of duties that Congress never envisioned would be delegated. We are not persuaded that Congress intended to grant authority to judges to delegate to magistrates the authority to preside over felony trials and over activities integral to and intimately tied with trial.6

We granted certiorari to resolve this important conflict. 488 U.S. 838 (1989).7

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II

The Federal Magistrates Act provides that a "magistrate may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3). Read literally and without reference to the context in which they appear, these words might encompass any assignment that is not explicitly prohibited by statute or by the Constitution. The Act itself specifies some proscriptions: magistrates "may hold no other civil or military office or employment under the United States," § 631(c), nor

engage in the practice of law [or] any other business, occupation, or employment inconsistent with the expeditious, proper, and impartial performance of their duties as judicial officers,

§ 632(a). The only legal constraint on many other assignments not expressly barred -- whether supervising repair of the courthouse electrical system or presiding at felony trials -- must be found, according to the literal reading, in the Constitution. The panel majority below and the...

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