539 U.S. 69 (2003), 01-10873, Nguyen v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 01-10873
Citation:539 U.S. 69, 123 S.Ct. 2130, 156 L.Ed.2d 64, 71 U.S.L.W. 4428
Party Name:Nguyen v. United States
Case Date:June 09, 2003
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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539 U.S. 69 (2003)

123 S.Ct. 2130, 156 L.Ed.2d 64, 71 U.S.L.W. 4428

Nguyen

v.

United States

No. 01-10873

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 2003[*]

        Argued March 24, 2003.

        CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

        Syllabus

        Petitioners were tried, convicted, and sentenced on federal narcotics charges in the District Court of Guam, a territorial court with subject matter jurisdiction over both federal law and local law causes. The Ninth Circuit panel convened to hear their appeals included two judges from that court, both of whom are life-tenured Article III judges, and the Chief Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, an Article IV territorial court judge appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a 10-year term. Neither petitioner objected to the panel's composition before the cases were submitted for decision, and neither sought rehearing to challenge the panel's authority to decide their appeals after it affirmed their convictions. However, each filed a certiorari petition claiming that the judgment is invalid because a non-Article III judge participated on the panel.

        Held: the Ninth Circuit panel did not have the authority to decide petitioners' appeals. Pp. 74-83.

        (a) In light of the relevant statutory provisions and historical usage, it is evident that Congress did not contemplate the judges of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands to be "district judges" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 292(a), which authorizes the assignment of "one or more district judges within [a] circuit" to sit on the court of appeals "whenever the business of that court so requires." As used throughout Title 28, "district court" means a "`court of the United States'" "constituted by chapter five of this title." § 451. Among other things, Chapter 5 creates a "United States District Court" for each judicial district, § 132(a), exhaustively enumerates the districts so constituted, § 133(a), and describes "district judges" as holding office "during good behavior," § 134(a). Significantly, the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands is not one of the enumerated courts, nor is it even mentioned in Chapter 5. See § 133(a). Because that court's judges are appointed for a term of years and may be removed by the President for cause, they also do not satisfy § 134(a)'s command for district judges to hold office during good behavior. Although the Chief

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Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands is literally a "district judge" of a court "within the [Ninth] [C]ircuit," such a reading of § 292(a) is so capacious that it would also justify the designation of "district judges" of any number of state courts "within" the Ninth Circuit. Moreover, historically, the term "United States District Court" in Title 28 has ordinarily excluded Article IV territorial courts, even when their jurisdiction is similar to that of an Article III United States District Court. E.g., Mookini v. United States, 303 U.S. 201, 205. Pp. 74-76.

        (b) The Government's three grounds for leaving the judgments below undisturbed are not persuasive. First, this Court's precedents concerning alleged irregularities in the assignment of judges do not compel application here of the de facto officer doctrine, which confers validity upon acts performed by a person acting under the color of official title even though it is later discovered that the legality of that person's appointment to office is deficient, Ryder v. United States, 515 U.S. 177, 180. Typically, the Court has found a judge's actions to be valid de facto when there is a "merely technical" defect of statutory authority, McDowell v. United States, 159 U.S. 596, 601-602, but not when, as here, there has been a violation of a statutory provision that embodies weighty congressional policy concerning the proper organization of the federal courts, see, e.g., American Constr. Co. v. Jacksonville, T. & K. W. R. Co., 148 U.S. 372, 387. Second, for essentially the same reasons, it is inappropriate to accept the Government's invitation to assess the merits of petitioners' convictions or whether the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the proceedings were impaired by the composition of the panel. Third, the Government's argument that the presence of a quorum of two otherwise-qualified judges on the panel is sufficient to support the decision below is rejected for two reasons. The federal quorum statute, 28 U.S.C. § 46(d), has been on the books (in relevant part essentially unchanged) for over a century, yet this Court has never doubted its power to vacate a judgment entered by an improperly constituted court of appeals, even when there was a quorum of judges competent to consider the appeal. See, e.g., United States v. American-Foreign S. S. Corp., 363 U.S. 685. Moreover, the statute authorizing courts of appeals to sit in panels, § 46(b), requires the inclusion of at least three judges in the first instance. Although the two Article III judges who took part below would have constituted a quorum had the original panel been properly created, it is at least highly doubtful whether they had any authority to serve by themselves as a panel. Thus it is appropriate to return these cases to the Ninth Circuit for fresh consideration by a properly constituted panel. Pp. 77-83.

284 F.3d 1086 vacated and remanded.

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        STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion in which SCALIA, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 83.

        OPINION

        STEVENS, JUSTICE.

        These cases present the question whether a panel of the Court of Appeals consisting of two Article III judges and one Article IV judge had the authority to decide petitioners' appeals. We conclude it did not, and we therefore vacate the judgments of the Court of Appeals.

        I

        Petitioners are residents of the Island of Guam, which has been a possession of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American War.[1] The Navy administered the island, except for the period of Japanese occupation during World War II, until Congress established Guam as an unincorporated territory with the passage of the Organic Act of Guam in 1950.[2] Pursuant to Congress' authority under Article IV, § 3, of the Constitution to "make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging

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to the United States," the Organic Act of Guam created a territorial court, the District Court of Guam, and vested it with subject matter jurisdiction over causes arising under both federal law and local law.[3] Petitioners were tried before a jury, convicted, and sentenced in the District Court of Guam to lengthy prison terms for federal narcotics offenses. Petitioners do not dispute that court's jurisdiction to conduct their criminal trial and enter judgments of conviction.

        As authorized by statute,[4] petitioners appealed their convictions to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The panel convened to hear their appeals included the Chief Judge and a Senior Circuit Judge of the Ninth Circuit, both of whom are, of course, life-tenured Article III judges who serve during "good Behaviour" for compensation that may not be diminished while in office. U.S. Const., Art. III, § 1. The third member of the panel was the Chief Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands. That court is not an Article III court, but an Article IV territorial court with subject matter jurisdiction substantially similar

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to the jurisdiction of the District Court of Guam.[5] The Chief Judge of the District for the Northern Mariana Islands, unlike an Article III judge, is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a term of 10 years "unless sooner removed by the President for cause."[6]

        The highly unusual presence of a non-Article III judge as a member of the Ninth Circuit panel occurred during special sittings in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. When the Court of Appeals heard arguments in Guam, the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit invited the Chief Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands to participate. A judge of the District Court of Guam was similarly invited to participate in appeals heard while the Ninth Circuit sat in the Northern Mariana Islands.

        The panel affirmed petitioners' convictions without dissent. 284 F.3d 1086 (2002). Neither Nguyen nor Phan objected to the composition of the panel before the cases were submitted for decision; neither petitioner sought rehearing after the Court of Appeals rendered judgment to challenge the panel's authority to decide their appeals. Each did, however, file a petition for certiorari raising the question whether the judgment of the Court of Appeals is invalid because of the participation of a non-Article III judge on the panel. In accordance with this Court's Rule 10(a), we granted the writ, 537 U.S. 999 (2002), to determine whether

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the Court of Appeals had "so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings as to call for an exercise of this Court's supervisory power." Pet. for Cert. in No. 01-10873, p. 6; Pet. for Cert. in No. 02-5034, p. 5. For the following reasons, we find these to be appropriate cases for the exercise of that power.

        II

        We begin with the congressional grant of authority permitting, in certain circumstances, the designation of district judges to serve on the courts of appeals. In relevant part, the designation statute authorizes the chief judge of a circuit to assign "one or more district judges within the circuit" to sit on the court of appeals...

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