RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Dr. Nguyen's Office
DOCKET NO.: 01-10873
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 539 US 69 (2003)
ARGUED: Mar 24, 2003
DECIDED: Jun 09, 2003
Jeffrey T. Green - for the petitioners
Patricia A. Millett - Department of Justice, for the respondent
Facts of the case
Khanh Phuong Nguyen and Tuyet Mai Thi Phan 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 Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel that 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 Nguyen nor Phan 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 immediately after it affirmed their convictions.
Did a panel of the Court of Appeals consisting of two Article III judges and one Article IV judge have the authority to decide the appeals of two defendants convicted on federal narcotics charges in the District Court of Guam?
Media for Nguyen v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 2003 in Nguyen v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 09, 2003 in Nguyen v. United States
John Paul Stevens:
I also have the opinion to announce in a case called Khanh Phuong Nguyen and Tuyet Mai Thi Phan against the United States has come to us from the Island of Guam.
This also is a case from the Ninth Circuit.
The petitioners were tried, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on federal narcotics charges in the District Court of Guam.
They appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The panel that was convened to decide their appeals included two judges of the Ninth Circuit who are life-renured Article III Judges and also Chief Judge Munson of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands who sat by designation.
That Court like the District Court of Guam is not an Article III Court but an Article IV Territorial Court.
Unlike an Article III Judge who enjoys life tenure and may remain in office during good behavior, a judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands serves for a term of ten years and the President may remove him from office for a good cause.
Before argument of their appeal, petitioners made no objects to Chief Judge Munson’s inclusion on the Ninth Circuit panel.
After the Court of Appeals affirmed their convictions and sentences, however, petitioners sought writs of certiorari presenting the question whether the decision of the Ninth Circuit should be invalidated because of Chief Judge Munson’s participation in the consideration and decision of their appeal.
We granted certiorari and for reasons stated in an opinion filed with the Clerk we vacate the judgments of the Court of Appeals.
Section 292(a) of the Judicial Code permits the Chief Judge of a Circuit to assign one or more district judges within the Circuit to sit on the Court of Appeals whenever the business of that court so requires.
Although, the Chief Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands is literally a “district judge” of a court within the Ninth Circuit, it is perfectly clear that his designation to the Court of Appeals was not authorized by statute.
Other provisions within Title 28 together with historical usage demonstrate that the term "district judges" as used in Section 292(a) refers only to those judges who enjoy the protections of Article III.
Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit Panel that included Chief Judge Munson was improperly constituted.
In our view, the defect in Chief Judge Munson’s designation of the Court of Appeals was not merely technical but rather represented a breach of Congress decision to preserve the Article III character of the Courts of Appeals.
The presence of a quorum of two otherwise qualified judges does not excuse the improper panel designation.
Although, the quorum statute has existed for over a century, we have consistently vacated the judgments of improperly constituted Courts of Appeals despite the presence of a quorum of competent judges.
It is highly doubtful that two Article III judges on the panel below and any authority deserve as a panel by themselves when the Court was not properly constituted in the first instance.
We, therefore, return these cases to the Ninth Circuit for a fresh consideration before a properly constituted panel.
The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer have joined.