Neder v. United States
Annotate this Case
527 U.S. 1 (1999)
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
OCTOBER TERM, 1998
NEDER v. UNITED STATES
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 97-1985. Argued February 23, 1999-Decided June 10, 1999
Petitioner N eder was convicted of filing false federal income tax returns and of federal mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud. At trial, the District Court determined that materiality with regard to the tax and bank fraud charges was not a question for the jury and found that the evidence established that element. The court did not include materiality as an element of either the mail fraud or wire fraud charges. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. It held that the District Court's failure to submit the materiality element of the tax offense to the jury was error under United States v. Gaudin, 515 U. S. 506, but that the error was subject to harmless-error analysis and was harmless because materiality was not in dispute and thus the error did not contribute to the verdict. The court also held that materiality is not an element of a "scheme or artifice to defraud" under the mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud statutes, 18 U. S. C. §§ 1341, 1343, 1344, and thus the District Court did not err in failing to submit materiality to the jury.
1. The harmless-error rule of Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18, applies to a jury instruction that omits an element of an offense. Pp.7-20.
(a) A limited class of fundamental constitutional errors is so intrinsically harmful as to require automatic reversal without regard to their effect on a trial's outcome. Such errors infect the entire trial process and necessarily render a trial fundamentally unfair. For all other con-
stitutional errors, reviewing courts must apply harmless-error analysis. An instruction that omits an element of the offense differs markedly from the constitutional violations this Court has found to defy harmless-error review, for it does not necessarily render a trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence. Omitting an element can easily be analogized to improperly instructing the jury on the element, an error that is subject to harmless-error analysis, Johnson v. United States, 520 U. S. 461, 469. The conclusion reached here is consistent with Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U. S. 275, on which Neder principally relies. The strand of Sullivan's reasoning that supports his position that harmless-error review is precluded where a constitutional error prevents a jury from rendering a "complete verdict" on every element of an offense cannot be squared with the cases in which this Court has applied harmless-error analysis to instructional errors, see, e. g., Pope v. Illinois, 481 U. S. 497. The restrictive approach that Neder gleaned from Connecticut v. Johnson, 460 U. S. 73, a concurring opinion in Carella v. California, 491 U. S. 263, and language in Sullivan-under which an instructional omission, misdescription, or conclusive presumption can be subject to harmlesserror analysis only in three rare situations-is also mistaken. Neder underreported $5 million on his tax returns, failed to contest materiality at trial, and does not suggest that he would introduce any evidence bearing upon that issue if so allowed. Reversal without consideration of the error's effect upon the verdict would send the case back for retrial focused not on materiality but on contested issues on which the jury was properly charged. The Sixth Amendment does not require the Court to veer away from settled precedent to reach such a result. pp.8-15.
(b) The District Court's failure to submit the tax offense's materiality element to the jury was harmless error. A constitutional error is harmless when it appears "beyond a reasonable doubt that the error ... did not contribute to the verdict obtained." Chapman v. California, supra, at 24. No jury could find that Neder's failure to report substantial income on his tax returns was not material. The evidence was so overwhelming that he did not even contest that issue. Where, as here, a reviewing court concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that the omitted element was uncontested and supported by overwhelming evidence, such that the jury verdict would have been the same absent the error, the erroneous instruction is properly found to be harmless. Neder's dispute of this conclusion is simply another form of the argument that the failure to instruct on any element of the crime is not subject to harmless-error analysis. The harmless-error inquiry in this case must be essentially the same as the analysis used in other cases that deal
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