RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals Eleventh Circuit
DOCKET NO.: 06-11612
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
CITATION: 553 US 242 (2008)
GRANTED: Sep 25, 2007
ARGUED: Jan 08, 2008
DECIDED: May 12, 2008
Brent E. Newton - on behalf of the Petitioner
Lisa Schiavo Blatt -
Facts of the case
Homero Gonzalez was tried with a co-defendant on several drug-related charges. He pled not guilty and opted for a jury trial. When jury selection began, a magistrate judge who had presided over several pretrial matters announced that she would conduct voir dire, and sought consent from the parties. Attorneys for the government and for Gonzalez expressly agreed. Gonzalez, who was being assisted by a translator, was not directly asked to consent, nor did he affirmatively object. He argued on appeal that he had the right to a new trial because he did not give his personal consent for a magistrate to conduct the jury interviews.
May a magistrate judge conduct voir dire if she has received approval from attorneys for both sides, but has not directly sought or received approval from the defendant?
Media for Gonzalez v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 08, 2008 in Gonzalez v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 12, 2008 in Gonzalez v. United States
Anthony M. Kennedy:
The federal statutes create the position of United States Magistrate Judge and the statutes prescribe their duties.
Magistrate Judges are not appointed pursuant to Article 3 of the Constitution.
And in earlier cases, we've addressed whether they can perform certain duties.
The statute that's involved here says that they can perform "additional duties that are not inconsistent with the constitution and laws."
Our earlier cases established that Magistrate Judges can preside at the jury selection phase and conduct voir dire in a felony criminal case, provided there is consent.
And this case requires us to decide whose consent.
Can counsel alone give consent? Or must the defendant give his or her own consent?
The petitioner was charged in United States District Court on five felony drug offense counts.
Now, at the outset of the jury selection phase, the parties appeared before a Magistrate Judge.
The Magistrate Judge asked the attorneys to approach the bench and after they complied, the Magistrate said, "I need to ask the parties at this time if they are going to consent to having United States Magistrate Judge, i.e. me, and preside in assisting the jury selection of this case."
The petitioner's counsel responded, "Yes, Your Honor, we are."
Petitioner himself was not asked if he consented to the Magistrate Judge's presiding, the petitioner was in the courtroom.
The record does not permit us to infer this or even to infer that the petitioner knew there was a right to be waived.
The petitioner made no objections to the Magistrate Judges ruling on the voir dires and selection phase.
The District judge then presided at the jury trial and the jury returned the verdict of guilty on all counts.
Petitioner appealed and he contended for the first time that it was error not to obtain his own consent to the Magistrate Judges presiding at voir dire.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the convictions.
We agree with the Court of Appeals.
We find no error here.
We hold the petitioner's counsel had full authority to consent to the Magistrate Judge's role.
As a general matter, when there is a full trial, there are various points in the pretrial and trial process when rights either can be asserted or waived, and there is support in our cases for concluding that some of these rights cannot be waived absent the defendant's own consent.
Although there are basic rights that the attorney cannot waive without the fully inform and publicly acknowledged consent of the client.
The lawyer has and must have full authority to manage the conduct of the trial.
Acceptance of the Magistrate Judge at the jury selection phase is a tactical decision, that is well-suited for the attorney's own decision.
The judges' particular approach to voir dire both in substance, that is to say that the questions asked and in tone, formal or informal, maybe relevant in light of the attorney's own approach, requiring personal on the record approval from the client could necessitate a lengthy explanation.
The client might not understand at the moment and that might distract for more pressing matters as the attorney seeks to prepare the best defense.
Consent from an attorney will therefore suffice.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.