Rivera v. Illinois

PETITIONER: Michael Rivera
RESPONDENT: Illinois
LOCATION: Circuit Court of Cook County - Criminal Division

DOCKET NO.: 07-9995
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Illinois

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2008
ARGUED: Feb 23, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 31, 2009

ADVOCATES:
James K. Leven - argued the cause for the petitioner
Matthew D. Roberts - argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
Michael A. Scodro - argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1998, Michael Rivera was convicted in an Illinois court on two counts of first degree murder and sentenced to 85 years in prison. Before the trial, Mr. Rivera's attorney moved to dismiss a potential juror. The judge did not allow it deeming the motion discriminatory towards the juror. On appeal after his conviction, Mr. Rivera argued that the trial court erred in dismissing the pre-trial motion and thus his conviction should be reversed. The Illinois Supreme Court remanded the case with instructions for the trial court to specify how the motion was discriminatory. After the trial court found that gender discrimination was at issue, the Illinois Supreme Court continued its review.

It held that Mr. Rivera was improperly denied his pre-trial motion to dismiss the juror. It reasoned that there was no evidence Mr. Rivera's attorney aimed to dismiss the juror because of her gender. However, it also found that this was harmless error. It explained that there was no evidence that indicated Mr. Rivera was tried before a biased jury because of the improperly dismissed motion. Thus, Mr. Rivera's conviction should stand.

Question

Does an error in dismissing a defendant's pre-trial motion to dismiss a juror require automatic reversal of conviction because it denies the defendant's right to an impartial jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment?

Media for Rivera v. Illinois

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 2009 in Rivera v. Illinois

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 31, 2009 in Rivera v. Illinois

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in case 07-9995, Rivera versus Illinois.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

A state trial court erroneously denied a criminal defendant's peremptory challenge.

Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, does that error require automatic reversal of the defendant's conviction even if all of the jurors actually seated are qualified and unbiased?

That is the question this case presents.

Petitioner Michael Rivera was charged with first-degree murder in an Illinois state court.

During jury selection, Rivera attempted to use a peremptory challenge against perspective juror, Deloris Gomez.

Concerned that Rivera's challenge was discriminatory on the basis of race or gender and is contrary to our decisions in Batson v. Kentucky and related cases, the trial court refused to allow it.

Because Rivera had no basis to challenge Gomez for cause, she was ceded on the jury.

Following trial, the jury with Gomez as its foreperson found Rivera guilty.

The Supreme Court of Illinois held that the trial court erred in rejecting Rivera's peremptory challenge.

It further held, however, that the error was harmless and did not warrant reversal of Rivera's conviction.

We affirm the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court.

A state trial court's good-faith but erroneous denial of a criminal defendant's peremptory challenge, we hold, does not require automatic reversal of the defendant's conviction provided that all person seated on the jury are qualified and unbiased.

We have long recognized the peremptory challenges are not a matter of federal constitutional right.

States may withhold peremptory challenges altogether without impairing the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial before an impartial jury.

Because the defendant's exercise of peremptory challenges is a matter of state law, a state court's mistaken denial of a peremptory challenge does not, without law, violate the Federal Constitution.

In this case, the trial courts 02:34 reflected a good-faith, if arguably overzealous, effort to enforce our Batson-related decisions.

None of the jury seated including Gomez was incompetent, biased or otherwise removable for cause.

Rivera does receive all that is essential under the Federal Constitution.

A fair trial before an impartial and properly instructed jury which found him guilty of every element of the charged offense.

Absent a federal constitutional violation, States retain discretion to decide what happens when an error in applying state law affects the composition of the jury.

They are free to decide, as a matter of state law, that a trial court's mistaken denial of a peremptory challenge is reversible error per se or they may conclude, as the Illinois Supreme Court implicitly did here, that the improper seating of a qualified and unbiased juror could rank as harmless error under state law.Our decision is unanimous.