Nguyen v. United States, 539 U.S. 69, 9 (2003)

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Cite as: 539 U. S. 69 (2003)

Opinion of the Court


Although the Government concedes that the panel of the Court of Appeals was improperly constituted, it advances three grounds on which the judgments below may rest undisturbed. Two of the grounds on which we are urged to affirm concern petitioners' failure to object to the panel's composition in the Court of Appeals. Relying on the so-called "de facto officer" doctrine, the Government contends petitioners' failure to challenge the panel's composition at the earliest practicable moment completely forecloses relief in this Court. The Government also contends that petitioners do not meet the requirements for relief under plain-error review. The presence of a quorum of two otherwise-qualified judges on the Court of Appeals panel is invoked as the third ground sufficient to support the decision below. We do not find these contentions persuasive.

The de facto officer doctrine, we have explained, "confers validity upon acts performed by a person acting under the color of official title even though it is later discovered that the legality of that person's appointment or election to office is deficient." Ryder v. United States, 515 U. S. 177, 180 (1995). Whatever the force of the de facto officer doctrine in other circumstances, an examination of our precedents concerning alleged irregularities in the assignment of judges does not compel us to apply it in these cases.

Typically, we have found a judge's actions to be valid de facto when there is a "merely technical" defect of statutory authority. Glidden Co. v. Zdanok, 370 U. S. 530, 535 (1962) (plurality opinion of Harlan, J.). In McDowell v. United States, 159 U. S. 596, 601-602 (1895), for example, the Court declined to notice alleged irregularities in a Circuit Judge's designation of a District Judge for temporary service in another district. See also Ball v. United States, 140 U. S. 118,

tion. We find it unnecessary to discuss the constitutional questions because the statutory violation is clear.


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