United States v. Lanier

PETITIONER: United States

DOCKET NO.: 95-1717
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 259 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 07, 1997
DECIDED: Mar 31, 1997

Alfred H. Knight - Argued the cause for the respondent
Seth P. Waxman - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

David W. Lanier was convicted under 18 U.S.C. Section 242 of criminally violating the constitutional rights of five women by assaulting them sexually while he served as a state judge. The jury had been instructed that the Government had to prove, as an element of the offense, that Lanier had deprived the victims of their Fourteenth Amendment due process right to liberty, which included the right to be free from sexually motivated physical assaults and coerced sexual battery. The District Court denied Lanier's motion, which sought to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the law is void for vagueness. The en banc Court of Appeals vacated Lanier's convictions for "lack of any notice to the public that this ambiguous criminal statute includes simple or sexual assault crimes within its coverage." The Court of Appeals held that the law may be imposed only if the constitutional right, said to have been violated, is first identified in a decision of the U.S Supreme Court, and only when the right has been held to apply in a factual situation "fundamentally similar." The court regarded these combined requirements as substantially higher than the "clearly established" standard used to judge qualified immunity in civil cases.


Did the Court of Appeals use a too demanding standard when it ruled that freedom from sexual assault, as included under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process right to liberty, has never been recognized as a federally protected constitutional right and therefore cannot be the basis for a federal prosecution?

Media for United States v. Lanier

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 07, 1997 in United States v. Lanier

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 95-1717, United States v. David Lanier.

Mr. Waxman.

Seth P. Waxman:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Between 1989 and 1991, the jury found Judge David Lanier sexually assaulted five women in his judicial chambers, one by repeated forcible oral rape, the others by what the jury concluded was

"physical abuse of a serious, substantial nature. "

As to each count on which Lanier was convicted, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt first that Lanier's conduct had deprived the victims of a right secured or protected by the Fourth Amendment.

That is, the right to be free of unjustified physical abuse, including sexual assault, of a serious, substantial nature under color of law and, second, that he had acted wilfully, which the court defined in accordance with this Court's decision in Screws v. United States.

A divided en banc Sixth Circuit ordered the indictments dismissed because in the majority's view the due process right to be free of forcible and coerced sexual assault had not been made specifically... sufficiently specific for the defendant to have known that in assaulting his victims he was violating their constitutional rights.

In concluding that sexual assault or any serious unjustified assault committed under color of law cannot be prosecuted under section 242, the court below misapprehended Screws and applied a standard no court has ever found necessary or appropriate.

Because the jury found that Lanier had sexually assaulted his victims while acting under color of law and with the knowledge and intention of violating their legal rights, and because decisions of the Federal courts had made specific the due process protection of those rights, the defendant was properly and constitutionally convicted in this case.

William H. Rehnquist:

Why does it have to--

--Mr. Waxman, two of the concurring judges in the court of appeals I believe felt that the oral rape should be sustained but that the misdemeanors simply, I believe, weren't under color of State law.

Does the Government take any position on that here?

Seth P. Waxman:

Well, yes, we do, Mr. Chief Justice.

First of all, I would stand corrected.

I had thought that what the two dissenting justices said was that the misdemeanors didn't rise to the level of a specifically defined constitutional violation.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, you may be right.

I'm not sure.

Seth P. Waxman:

But in any event, we do disagree.

We certainly recognize that there is a very significant difference in degree as to the conduct with respect to the coerced oral rapes and the conduct with respect to the other five misdemeanor convictions, but the right that has been made specific in this case is the right that this Court in Ingraham v. Wright identified.

It made specific the substantive due process

"right to be free from unjustified intrusions on personal security. "

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, if that's true, then why does... there has to be a serious touching, or a serious assault, because that was part of your submission at the outset.

If indeed it is the fourth Amendment that is controlling, why is not any offensive touching a violation of the act?

Seth P. Waxman:

Well, your... Justice Kennedy, your question raises a lot of issues.

One is whether it's the Fourth Amendment that's controlling, and the second, why it is that substantial serious was included in the jury instruction.

If I can... I will attempt to answer each of them separately.

We don't think... we did not understand that the Fourth Amendment was controlling in this case.

this was alleged, the indictment alleged that this was a substantive due process violation, the substantive due process right being the right to freedom from unwarranted intrusions by under color of State law physical integrity.

We don't understand the Fourth Amendment cases... and that was our effort to articulate a right that had been made specific by this Court in a series of due process decisions.