RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Jefferson County District Court
DOCKET NO.: 94-431
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
CITATION: 515 US 177 (1995)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 1995
DECIDED: Jun 12, 1995
Allen Lotz - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Lawrence G. Wallace - Argued the cause for the respondent United States
Facts of the case
James Ryder, an enlisted member of the Coast Guard, was convicted of drug offenses by a court-martial. The Coast Guard Court of Military Review affirmed. On rehearing, the court rejected Ryder's claim that its composition violated the Appointments Clause because two of the judges on the three-judge panel were civilians appointed by the General Counsel of the Department of Transportation. The Court of Military Appeals agreed with Ryder that the appointments violated the Clause under its previous decision in United States v. Carpenter that appellate military judges are inferior officers who must be appointed by a President, a court of law, or a head of a department. The court nonetheless affirmed Ryder's conviction on the ground that the actions of the two civilian judges were valid de facto.
Is it proper to accord de facto validity to the actions of civilian judges on a military appellate panel, when the accused challenges the composition of the panel as a violation of the Constitution's Appointments Clause?
Media for Ryder v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 1995 in Ryder v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 12, 1995 in Ryder v. United States
William H. Rehnquist:
The second case I am going to announce is number 94-431, Ryder versus the United States, and here the petitioner was convicted of a drug offense by a Court Marshall convened by the Coast-Guard.
He appealed his sentence to a three-judge panel of the Court of Military review of the Coast-Guard.
The Court rejected his challenge to the appointment of two of those judges, based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution and it affirmed his conviction.
On further appeal, the Court of Military Appeals held that the appointment of those judges had violated the Appointments Clause, but it upheld petitioner's conviction anyway.
It reasoned that the actions of the improperly appointed judges were valid de facto.
In an opinion filed with the clerk of the Court today, we reverse the ruling of the Court of Military Appeals.
The de facto officer doctrine confers validity on actions performed by a person who acts under the color of official title even though it's later discovered that the legality of that person's appointment is deficient.
Cases in which this Court is applied, the doctrine defined the action of judges and criminal matters valid de facto have involved technical violations of designation statutes, where the defendant didn?t raise the timely objection to the officer's title.
Unlike those cases, the petitioner here did timely object to the appointment of the appellate panel in a claim grounded in the Appointments Clause, and that clause by preventing the diffusion of appointment power is the constitutional provision designed in part to benefit litigants and so, to preserve the incentive to raise such challenges with respect to questionable judicial appointments we hold that a defendant is entitled to a decision on the merits of the question and whatever relief maybe appropriate.
The opinion is unanimous.