United States v. Lanier
Decided on Mar. 31, 1997; 520 US 259


 

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Due process, sexual assault

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the Court of Appeals use a standard of notice higher than required by the Constitution when it ruled that freedom from sexual assault, as included under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process right to liberty, had never been recognized as a federally protected constitutional right?
II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"Respondent Lanier was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 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, inter alia, 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 en banc Sixth Circuit set aside the convictions for lack of any notice to the public that §242 covers simple or sexual assault crimes. Invoking general interpretive canons and Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91 (plurality opinion), the court held that §242 criminal liability may be imposed only if the constitutional right said to have been violated is first identified in a decision of this Court, and only when the right has been held to apply in a factual situation 'fundamentally similar' to the one at bar. The court regarded these combined requirements as substantially higher than the "clearly established" standard used to judge qualified immunity in civil cases under 42 U.S.C. § 1983."

On appeal the U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Deputy Solicitor General Waxman argued the cause for the United States. On the briefs were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General Patrick, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, Paul R. Q. Wolfson, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Thomas E. Chandler.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Marjorie Heins and Steven R. Shapiro;

for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund et al. by Lynn Hecht Schafran and Martha F. Davis;

for the Southern Poverty Law Center et al. by Mary-Christine Sungaila, Gregory R. Smith, J. Richard Cohen, and Brian Levin;

and for Vivian Forsythe-Archie et al. by Catharine A. MacKinnon.

Alfred H. Knight, by appointment of the Court, 519 U. S. 804, argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.


IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The Sixth Circuit employed the wrong standard for determining whether particular conduct falls within the range of criminal liability under section (§) 242. Section 242's general language prohibiting 'the deprivation of any rights . . . secured . . . by the Constitution' does not describe the specific conduct it forbids, but--like its companion conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 241--incorporates constitutional law by reference.

Before criminal liability may be imposed for violation of any penal law, due process requires 'fair warning . . . of what the law intends...' The touchstone is whether the statute, either standing alone or as construed by the courts, made it reasonably clear at the time of the charged conduct that the conduct was criminal...

[T]he Court has upheld convictions under § 241 or § 242 despite notable factual distinctions between prior cases and the later case, so long as the prior decisions gave reasonable warning that the conduct at issue violated constitutional rights... The Sixth Circuit's view that due process under § 242 demands more than the 'clearly established' qualified immunity test under § 1983... is error... As with official conduct under § 1983..., liability may be imposed under § 242 if, but only if, in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness of the defendant's conduct is apparent."

The U.S Supreme Court vacated and remanded the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Souter, D. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit's judgment; the Supreme Court vacated and remanded in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.