A Reverse Clear Statement Rule?

Last week the Supreme Court issued an opinion in a seemingly straightforward statutory interpretation case, Gonzalez v. United States. At issue was whether the Federal Magistrates Act (FMA) permits magistrate judges (rather than Article III district court judges) to preside over voir dire and jury selection in a felony criminal trial if defense counsel consents to the arrangement, but absent express consent from the defendant himself. Section 636(b)(3) of the FMA states that: “A magistrate judge may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The Court concluded that the statutory language and relevant precedents (Gomez v. United States and Peretz v. United States) did not bar delegation of felony jury selection and voir dire to a magistrate. But more interesting, in my view, than the outcome reached by the Court is the argument it brushed aside with little fanfare in getting there: constitutional avoidance.

It is a well-worn if not-exactly-well-loved canon of statutory construction that when a statute is susceptible of two interpretations, by one of which grave and doubtful constitutional questions arise and by the other of which such questions are avoided, the Court’s duty is to adopt the interpretation that steers clear of constitutional difficulties. The petitioner in this case argued that the decision to have a magistrate judge rather than an Article III judge preside at jury selection is a fundamental choice, involving a defendant’s fundamental rights, and that interpreting the FMA to authorize waiver of this choice without the express consent of the defendant raised a question of constitutional significance. Given the canon of constitutional avoidance, he pressed the Court to require an explicit personal statement of consent before a magistrate judge may be permitted to preside over felony jury selection. The Court, however, quickly waived away this argument, insisting that no serious constitutional is raised by such a delegation of authority to a magistrate, absent a defendant’s express consent, because: (1) as petitioner conceded, a magistrate judge is capable of competent and impartial performance of the judicial tasks involved in jury examination and selection; (2) the Article III district judge, insulated by life tenure and irreducible salary, is waiting in the wings, fully able to correct errors; (3) requiring the defendant to consent to a magistrate judge by way of an on-the-record personal statement is not dictated by precedent; and (4) such a requirement would burden the trial process. In other words, the Court relied on policy arguments to trump petitioner’s claim that felony defendants have a constitutional right to have an Article III judge preside over their trials, waivable only by the defendant personally.


This move stands in marked contrast, in my opinion, to the Roberts Court’s opinions in Rapanos v. United States and Gonzalez v. Carhart, both of which relied, at least in part, on the avoidance canon. In Rapanos, for example, the Court rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ interpretation of the term “navigable waters” in the Clean Water Act, in part because the Corps’ expansive definition “press[ed] the envelope of constitutional validity” by eliminating “virtually all” state and local water resource planning — thereby raising serious federalism concerns. Given the federalism issues created by the Corps’ regulation, the plurality held that a clearer statement was required, in the statutory text, demonstrating Congress’ intent to let the federal agency intrude upon state and local governments’ authority. The plurality’s use of the avoidance canon—clear statement rule one-two punch in Rapanos was particularly noteworthy because it helped lead to the overturning of an Army Corps regulation that had been in place, unaltered by Congress, for 30 years. Similarly, in Carhart, the majority argued that the federal partial birth abortion statute should be construed NOT to cover the prototypical D & E procedure used in many abortions, noting that “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.”

What is striking to me is that whereas Rapanos and Carhart both were closely divided (5-4) cases, in this case only one Justice—Justice Thomas—took seriously petitioner’s argument that the government’s construction should be avoided because it might deprive felony defendants of an important constitutional right. (Thomas’s dissent examined the Framers’ views on independent judges and their reasons for establishing Article III judges, protected by life tenure and a guaranteed salary). Perhaps even more striking, Justice Scalia, who authored the plurality opinion in Rapanos, seems almost to argue for a reverse-clear-statement-rule in his concurring opinion in Gonzalez. Indeed, his concurrence bluntly states: “I would leave this matter of placing reasonable limits upon the right of agency in criminal trials to be governed by positive law, in statutes and rules of procedure. I would hold that petitioner’s counsel’s waiver was effective because no rule or statute provides that the waiver come from the defendant personally.” In other words, Justice Scalia would flip the avoidance-clear statement presumption in the context of criminal defendants’ waiver of their constitutional rights at trial. He would make it the default that all of a defendant’s rights (save the right to counsel) could be waived by defense counsel, absent defendant’s personal consent — and the only way around this default would be through a clear statement, in a particular statute or rule of criminal procedure, requiring the defendant’s express personal consent to waive a particular right. Talk about a clear statement rule that would turn protection of a defendant’s constitutional rights on its head! Instead of reading statutes to avoid constitutionally difficult constructions, now the presumption would be that no constitutional violation has occurred. And only a clear statement in the statutory text could reverse the presumption. This rule certainly would have the advantage of providing a bright-line—no doubt the source of its attractiveness to Justice Scalia—but it seems a little inside-out and upside-down to me.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. What’s so great about the constitutional avoidance doctrine? Usually it only postpones the constitutional inquiry.

    It seems that the present case did in fact rule upon the constitutional question when it found (as it must have found) that the assignment of the magistrate was, in the language of the statute, “not inconsistent with the Constitution.”

  2. Anita Krishnakumar says:

    Thanks for your comment, Anthony. Let me clarify: I’m not such a huge fan of the avoidance canon myself; in fact I think it was somewhat dubiously used in Rapanos and Carhart. My point was more that the Court’s use of the canon seems haphazard and inconsistent. And Justice Scalia’s suggested approach seems wholly at odds with the way he has applied the canon in other contexts.

    I suppose you could say that the Court ruled on the constitutional question in this case by refusing to acknowledge that any serious issue was raised, but if so it would have been nice for the Court to discuss the constitutional issues thoroughly, rather than brush them aside in a paragraph or so with policy arguments insisting, essentially, that it’s at worst harmless error to use magistrate judges. As I noted in the post, the only opinion that even attempts to talk specifically about what the Constitution requires is Justice Thomas’s dissent.