Smith v. Phillips

LOCATION:White House

DOCKET NO.: 80-1082
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 455 US 209 (1982)
ARGUED: Nov 09, 1981
DECIDED: Jan 25, 1982

Robert M. Pitler – for petitioner
William M. Kunstler – for respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Smith v. Phillips

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 09, 1981 in Smith v. Phillips

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 25, 1982 in Smith v. Phillips

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Mr. Justice Rehnquist will deliver the opinion for the Court in case 80-1082.

William H. Rehnquist:

In this case Smith against Phillips comes here from the Second Circuit on federal habeas petition.

The respondent was convicted of murder by a New York state jury.

During his trial one of the jurors applied to the District Attorney’s Office for employment for employment as a major felony investigator.

When the attorneys prosecuting respondent learned that one of the jurors had applied for such employment in their office, they took steps to ensure that the juror would not be contacted by the office but concluded that there was no need to inform the trial court or defense counsel of his application.

Four days after the trial, the District Attorney himself learned of the application and promptly informed the trial judge and defense counsel.

Defense counsel thereupon moved to set aside the verdict which had been returned in the interim.

In response, the trial judge held a hearing at which the prosecuting attorneys explained their decision not to disclose the application and the juror explained that he had seen nothing improper in submitting the application during the trial.

On the basis of the evidence presented at this hearing, the trial judge found in his words, “Beyond a reasonable doubt” that the juror’s application would not affected the verdict.

The trial judge also found that that the prosecutors have acted in a good faith.

Respondent then filed then filed a petition for federal habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District Court of New York claiming that the juror’s applicant resulted in a denial of due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The District Court found insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the juror was actually biased by the application to the District Attorney’s Office, but nonetheless, imputed bias to the juror because of its conclusion that the “average person” would have been influenced by the application.

The District Court’s decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, not on the basis of imputed juror bias but because of the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the prosecutors acted improperly in failing to disclose the fact to the juror’s application.

Today we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.

This Court has long held that the remedy for allegations of juror impartiality in a — is a hearing like the one held in state court in this case in which the defendant has the opportunity to prove actual juror bias.

If such a hearing has been held and the state court has determined that no prejudice occurred a federal court errs by imputing bias to the juror.

In cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct the touchstone of due process analysis is the fairness of the trial, not the culpability of the prosecutor.

Since the state trial court found that respondent’s trial was fair, the Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the conviction solely on the basis of the prosecutors’ conduct.

Justice O’Connor who joins the opinion of the Court has filed a concurring statement.

Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion which is joined by Justices Brennan and Stevens.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Thank you Justice Rehnquist.