Gomez v. United States
490 U.S. 858 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Gomez v. United States

No. 88-5014

Argued April 24, 1989

Decided June 12, 1989*

490 U.S. 858

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. 490 U. S. 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. 490 U. S. 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

Page 490 U. S. 859

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. 490 U. S. 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 review the jury selection function meaningfully, since no transcript can recapture the atmosphere of the voir dire. Pp. 490 U. S. 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. 490 U. S. 876.

848 F.2d 1324, reversed.

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

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