520 U.S. 259 (1997), 95-1717, United States v. Lanier

Docket Nº:Case No. 95-1717
Citation:520 U.S. 259, 117 S.Ct. 1219, 137 L.Ed.2d 432, 65 U.S.L.W. 4232
Case Date:March 31, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 259

520 U.S. 259 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 1219, 137 L.Ed.2d 432, 65 U.S.L.W. 4232




Case No. 95-1717

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1997

Argued January 7, 1997



Respondent Lanier was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 242 of criminally violating the constitutional rights of five women by assaulting them sexually while he served as a state judge. The jury had been instructed, inter alia, that the Government had to prove as an element of the offense that Lanier had deprived the victims of their Fourteenth Amendment due process right to liberty, which included the right to be free from sexually motivated physical assaults and coerced sexual battery. The en banc Sixth Circuit set aside the convictions for lack of any notice to the public that § 242 covers simple or sexual assault crimes. Invoking general interpretive canons and Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91 (plurality opinion), the court held that § 242 criminal liability may be imposed only if the constitutional right said to have been violated is first identified in a decision of this Court, and only when the right has been held to apply in a factual situation "fundamentally similar" to the one at bar. The court regarded these combined requirements as substantially higher than the "clearly established" standard used to judge qualified immunity in civil cases under 42 U.S.C. §1983.


The Sixth Circuit employed the wrong standard for determining whether particular conduct falls within the range of criminal liability under § 242. Section 242's general language prohibiting "the deprivation of any rights . . . secured . . . by the Constitution" does not describe the specific conduct it forbids, but—like its companion conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 241—incorporates constitutional law by reference. Before criminal liability may be imposed for violation of any penal law, due process requires "fair warning. . . of what the law intends." McBoyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25, 27. The touchstone is whether the statute, either standing alone or as construed by the courts, made it reasonably clear at the time of the charged conduct that the conduct was criminal. Section 242 was construed in light of this due process requirement in Screws, supra. The Sixth Circuit erred in adding as a gloss to this standard the requirement that a prior decision of this Court have declared the constitutional right at issue in a factual situation "fundamentally similar" to the one at bar. The Screws plurality referred in general terms to rights made specific by "decisions interpreting" the Constitution, see 325 U.S., at 104; no subsequent case has confined the

Page 260

universe of relevant decisions to the Court's opinions; and the Court has specifically referred to Court of Appeals decisions in defining the established scope of a constitutional right under § 241, see Anderson v. United States, 417 U.S. 211, 223-227, and in enquiring whether a right was "clearly established" when applying the qualified immunity rule under § 1983 and Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, see, e. g., Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 533. Nor has this Court demanded precedents applying the right at issue to a "fundamentally similar" factual situation at the level of specificity meant by the Sixth Circuit. Rather, the Court has upheld convictions under § 241 or § 242 despite notable factual distinctions between prior cases and the later case, so long as the prior decisions gave reasonable warning that the conduct at issue violated constitutional rights. See, e. g., United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745, 759, n. 17. The Sixth Circuit's view that due process under § 242 demands more than the "clearly established" qualified immunity test under §1983 or Bivens is error. In effect that test is simply the adaptation of the fair warning standard to give officials (and, ultimately, governments) the same protection from civil liability and its consequences that individuals have traditionally possessed in the face of vague criminal statutes. As with official conduct under §1983 or Bivens, liability may be imposed under § 242 if, but only if, in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness of the defendant's conduct is apparent. Pp. 264-272.

73 F.3d 1380, vacated and remanded.

Souter J., delivered the opinion a unanimous Court.

Deputy Solicitor General Waxman argued the cause for the United States. On the briefs were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General Patrick, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, Paul R. Q. Wolfson, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Thomas E. Chandler.

Alfred H. Knight, by appointment of the Court, 519 U.S. 804, argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.[*]

Page 261

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent David Lanier was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 242 of criminally violating the constitutional rights of five women by assaulting them sexually while Lanier served as a state judge. The Sixth Circuit reversed his convictions on the ground that the constitutional right in issue had not previously been identified by this Court in a case with fundamentally similar facts. The question is whether this standard of notice is higher than the Constitution requires, and we hold that it is.


David Lanier was formerly the sole state Chancery Court judge for two rural counties in western Tennessee. The trial record, read most favorably to the jury's verdict, shows that from 1989 to 1991, while Lanier was in office, he sexually assaulted several women in his judicial chambers. The two most serious assaults were against a woman whose divorce proceedings had come before Lanier and whose daughter's custody remained subject to his jurisdiction. When the woman applied for a secretarial job at Lanier's courthouse, Lanier interviewed her and suggested that he might have to reexamine the daughter's custody. When the woman got up to leave, Lanier grabbed her, sexually assaulted her, and finally committed oral rape. A few weeks later, Lanier inveigled the woman into returning to the courthouse again to get information about another job opportunity, and again sexually assaulted and orally raped her. App. 44-67. On five other occasions Lanier sexually assaulted four other women: two of his secretaries, a Youth Services Officer of the juvenile court over which Lanier presided, and a local coordinator for a federal program who was in Lanier's chambers to discuss a matter affecting the same court. Id., at 13-43, 67-109.

Ultimately, Lanier was charged with 11 violations of § 242, each count of the indictment alleging that, acting willfully and under color of Tennessee law, he had deprived the victim

Page 262

of "rights and privileges which are secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, namely the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law, including the right to be free from wilful sexual assault." Id., at 5-12. Before trial, Lanier moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that § 242 is void for vagueness. The District Court denied the motion.

The trial judge instructed the jury on the Government's burden to prove as an element of the offense that the defendant deprived the victim of rights secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States:

"Included in the liberty protected by the [Due Process Clause of the] Fourteenth Amendment is the concept of personal bodily integrity and the right to be free of unauthorized and unlawful physical abuse by state intrusion. Thus, this protected right of liberty provides that no person shall be subject to physical or bodily abuse without lawful justification by a state official acting or claiming to act under the color of the laws of any state of the United States when that official's conduct is so demeaning and harmful under all the circumstances as to shock one's consci[ence]. Freedom from such physical abuse includes the right to be free from certain sexually motivated physical assaults and coerced sexual battery. It is not, however, every unjustified touching or grabbing by a state official that constitutes a violation of a person's constitutional rights. The physical abuse must be of a serious substantial nature that involves physical force, mental coercion, bodily injury or emotional damage which is shocking to one's consci[ence]." Id., at 186-187.

The jury returned verdicts of guilty on seven counts, and not guilty on three (one count having been dismissed at the close of the Government's evidence). It also found that the two oral rapes resulted in "bodily injury," for which Lanier was

Page 263

subject to 10-year terms of imprisonment on each count, in addition to 1-year terms under the other five counts of conviction, see § 242. He was sentenced to consecutive maximum terms totaling 25 years.

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentence, 33 F.3d 639 (1994), but the full court vacated that decision and granted rehearing en banc, 43 F.3d 1033 (1995). On rehearing, the court set aside Lanier's convictions for "lack of any notice to the public that this ambiguous criminal statute [ i. e., § 242] includes simple or sexual assault crimes within its coverage." 73 F.3d 1380, 1384 (1996). Invoking general canons for interpreting criminal statutes, as well as this Court's plurality opinion in Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91 (1945), the Sixth Circuit held that criminal liability may be imposed under § 242 only if the constitutional right said to have been violated is first identified in a decision of this Court (not any other federal, or state, court), and only when the right has been...

To continue reading