United States v. Martinez-Salazar

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Massachusetts Office for Administration and Finance

DOCKET NO.: 98-1255
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 528 US 304 (2000)
ARGUED: Nov 29, 1999
DECIDED: Jan 19, 2000

Michael R. Dreeben – Department of Justice, argued the cause for petitioner
Michael Gordon – Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Abel Martinez-Salazar was charged with a variety of federal narcotics and weapons offenses. The District Court allotted him 10 peremptory challenges exercisable in the selection of 12 jurors. After prospective juror Don Gilbert indicated several times that he would favor the prosecution, Martinez- Salazar’s counsel challenged him for cause. The court declined to excuse Gilbert. After twice objecting, unsuccessfully, to the for-cause ruling, Martinez-Salazar used a peremptory challenge to remove him. Subsequently, Martinez-Salazar exhausted all of his peremptory challenges. Thereafter, Martinez-Salazar’s counsel did not object to the final seating of the jurors. Martinez-Salazar was then convicted on all counts. On appeal, Martinez-Salazar argued that the District Court abused its discretion in refusing to strike Gilbert for cause and that this error used one of his peremptory challenges wrongly. The Court of Appeals agreed that the District Court’s refusal to strike Gilbert for cause was an abuse of discretion. Ultimately, the court found that the District Court’s error resulted in a violation of Martinez- Salazar’s Fifth Amendment due process rights because it forced him to use a peremptory challenge curatively, which impaired his right to a full complement of peremptory challenges. The Court of Appeals held that the error required an automatic reversal.


s a defendant’s peremptory challenge right impaired or denied when he or she peremptorily challenges a potential juror, whom the district court erroneously refused to excuse for cause, and the defendant thereafter exhausts his peremptory challenges?

Media for United States v. Martinez-Salazar

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 29, 1999 in United States v. Martinez-Salazar

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 19, 2000 in United States v. Martinez-Salazar

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No.98-1255, United States v. Martinez-Salazar will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns challenges to potential jurors in Federal Criminal Trials.

In selecting jury, parties are entitled to an unlimited number of challenges forcause.

Cause can be, for example, the potential juror’s relationship to a party or a pre-judgment of an issue in the case.

Parties are also allotted a limited number of so-called peremptory challenges.

Peremptory challenges allow a party to remove from the jury individuals the party does not wish to serve on it, even if there are insufficient grounds to challenge forcause.

In this case, defense counsel sought to remove a juror forcause; the trial judge denied the forcause strike and it is now conceded that the trial judge’s ruling was wrong.

To keep the unwanted individual off the jury, defense counsel exercised the peremptory challenge.

The defendant was convicted and on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, he successfully argued that the erroneous ruling on his forcause objection automatically entitled him to a new trial.

In today’s decision, we reversed the Ninth Circuit to do one judgment.

Respondent Martinez-Salazar and a co-defendant faced trial in Federal Court in Arizona for narcotics and weapons offences.

The trial judge following Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 24, gave the two defendants ten peremptory challenges to exercise jointly in the selection of 12 jurors and one more for the selection of an alternate.

Potential juror Don Gilbert said in response to questions put by the judge, “All things being equal, he would probably tend to favor the prosecution”.

When the judge refused to dismiss Gilbert forcause, Martinez-Salazar used the peremptory challenge to remove Gilbert and thereafter used all his remaining peremptory challenges.

At the close of jury selection, Martinez-Salazar’s counsel said he had no objection to any juror actually seated.

On appeal from his convictions, Martinez-Salazar argued that the Trial Court’s error in refusing to dismiss Gilbert forcause automatically required as a matter of due process, a new trial.

The Court of Appeals agreed and therefore reversed the convictions.

We granted certiorari in view of disagreement on this issue among the Circuits.

The government initially argued that Federal Law requires a defendant to use a peremptory challenge to strike a juror who should have been removed forcause in order to preserve for appeal the issue of the Trial Court’s error.

While we do not adopt that position, we agree with the government’s fallback argument that the rule governing jury selection, Rule 24 and due process were not violated in this case.

Martinez-Salazar had a choice, albeit a hard one, when the Trial Court refused to dismiss Gilbert forcause.

He could exercise the peremptory to strike Gilbert or he could stand on his forcause objection and then, if convicted, challenge the seating of Gilbert on Appeal.

Choosing to remove Gilbert rather than taking his chances on appeal, Martinez-Salazar did not lose a peremptory challenge rather he used a peremptory in a manner consistent with one of the principle purposes of the challenge to help secure the constitutional guarantee of trial by an impartial jury.

Our decision takes account of the reality of the jury selection process, challenges forcause and rulings on them are fast-paced, made on the spot and under pressure.

Counsel as well as court in that process must be prepared to decide promptly and often between shades of gray.

Justice Souter has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Scalia joined by Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring only in the Court’s judgment.