Nguyen v. United States, 539 U.S. 69 (2003)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 01-10873. Argued March 24, 2003—Decided June 9, 2003*

Petitioners were tried, convicted, and sentenced on federal narcotics charges in the District Court of Guam, a territorial court with subject-matter jurisdiction over both federal-law and local-law causes. The Ninth Circuit panel convened to hear their appeals included two judges from that court, both of whom are life-tenured Article III judges, and the Chief Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, an Article IV territorial-court judge appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a 10-year term. Neither petitioner objected to the panel's composition before the cases were submitted for decision, and neither sought rehearing to challenge the panel's authority to decide their appeals after it affirmed their convictions. However, each filed a certiorari petition claiming that the judgment is invalid because a non-Article III judge participated on the panel.

Held: The Ninth Circuit panel did not have the authority to decide petitioners' appeals. Pp. 74-83.

(a) In light of the relevant statutory provisions and historical usage, it is evident that Congress did not contemplate the judges of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands to be "district judges" within the meaning of 28 U. S. C. 292(a), which authorizes the assignment of "one or more district judges within [a] circuit" to sit on the court of appeals "whenever the business of that court so requires." As used throughout Title 28, "district court" means a " 'court of the United States' " "constituted by chapter 5 of this title." 451. Among other things, Chapter 5 creates a "United States District Court" for each judicial district, 132(a), exhaustively enumerates the districts so constituted, 133(a), and describes "district judges" as holding office "during good behavior," 134(a). Significantly, the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands is not one of the enumerated courts, nor is it even mentioned in Chapter 5. See 133(a). Because that court's judges are appointed for a term of years and may be removed by the President for cause, they also do not satisfy 134(a)'s command for district judges to hold office during good behavior. Although the Chief

*Together with No. 02-5034, Phan v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.


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