United States v. Jackson 390 u.s. 570 (1968)

Syllabus

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

390 U.S. 570

United States v. Jackson

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT

No. 85 Argued: December 7, 1967 --- Decided: April 8, 1968
The Federal Kidnaping Act provides that interstate kidnapers

shall be punished (1) by death if the kidnaped person has not been liberated unharmed, and if the verdict of the jury shall so recommend, or (2) by imprisonment for any term of years or for life, if the death penalty is not imposed.

The District Court dismissed the count of an indictment charging appellees with violating the Act because it makes "the risk of death" the price for asserting the right to trial by jury, and thus "impairs . . . free exercise" of that constitutional right. The Government appealed directly to this Court.

Held: The death penalty clause imposes an impermissible burden upon the exercise of a constitutional right, but that provision is severable from the remainder of the Act and the unconstitutionality of that clause does not require the defeat of the Act as a whole. Pp. 572-591.

262 F.Supp. 716, reversed and remanded.


STEWART, J., Opinion of the Court

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

390 U.S. 570

United States v. Jackson

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT

No. 85 Argued: December 7, 1967 --- Decided: April 8, 1968
MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Kidnaping Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a), provides:

Whoever knowingly transports in interstate . . . commerce, any person who has been unlawfully . . . kidnaped . . . and held for ransom . . . or otherwise [p571] . . . shall be punished (1) by death if the kidnaped person has not been liberated unharmed, and if the verdict of the jury shall so recommend, or (2) by imprisonment for any term of years or for life, if the death penalty is not imposed.

This statute thus creates an offense punishable by death "if the verdict of the jury shall so recommend." The statute sets forth no procedure for imposing the death penalty upon a defendant who waives the right to jury trial or upon one who pleads guilty.

On October 10, 1966, a federal grand jury in Connecticut returned an indictment charging in count one that three named defendants, the appellees in this case, had transported from Connecticut to New Jersey a person who had been kidnaped and held for ransom, and who had been harmed when liberated. [n1] The District Court dismissed this count of the indictment, [n2] holding the Federal Kidnaping Act unconstitutional because it makes "the risk of death" the price for asserting the right to jury trial, and thereby "impairs . . . free exercise" of that constitutional right. [n3] The Government appealed [p572] directly to this Court, [n4] and we noted probable jurisdiction. [n5] We reverse.

We agree with the District Court that the death penalty provision of the Federal Kidnaping Act imposes an impermissible burden upon the exercise of a constitutional right, but we think that provision is severable from the remainder of the statute. There is no reason to invalidate the law in its entirety simply because its capital punishment clause violates the Constitution. The District Court therefore erred in dismissing the kidnaping count of the indictment.

I

One fact at least is obvious from the face of the statute itself: in an interstate kidnaping case where the victim has not been liberated unharmed, the defendant's assertion of the right to jury trial may cost him his life, for the federal statute authorizes the jury -- and only the jury -- to return a verdict of death. The Government does not dispute this proposition. What it disputes is the conclusion that the statute thereby subjects the defendant who seeks a jury trial to an increased hazard of capital punishment. As the Government construes the statute, a defendant who elects to be tried by a jury cannot be put to death even if the jury so recommends -- unless the trial judge agrees that capital punishment should be imposed. Moreover, the argument goes, a defendant cannot avoid the risk of death by attempting to plead guilty or waive jury trial. For even if the trial judge accepts a guilty plea or approves a jury waiver, the judge remains free, in the Government's view of the statute, to convene a special jury for the limited purpose of deciding whether to recommend the death penalty. The Government thus contends that, whether or not the [p573] defendant chooses to submit to a jury the question of his guilt, the death penalty may be imposed if and only if both judge and jury concur in its imposition. On this understanding of the statute, the Government concludes that the death penalty provision of the Kidnaping Act does not operate to penalize the defendant who chooses to contest his guilt before a jury. It is unnecessary to decide here whether this conclusion would follow from the statutory scheme the Government envisions, [n6] for it is not, in fact, the scheme that Congress enacted.

At the outset, we reject the Government's argument that the Federal Kidnaping Act gives the trial judge discretion to set aside a jury recommendation of death. So far as we are aware, not once in the entire 34-year history of the Act has a jury's recommendation of death been discarded by a trial judge. [n7] The Government would [p574] apparently have us assume either that trial judges have always agreed with jury recommendations of capital punishment under the statute -- an unrealistic assumption, at best, [n8] -- or that they have abdicated their statutory duty to exercise independent judgment on the issue of penalty. In fact, the explanation is a far simpler one. The statute unequivocally states that, "if the verdict of the jury shall so recommend," the defendant "shall be punished . . . by death. . . ." The word is "shall," not "may." [n9] In acceding without exception to jury recommendations [p575] of death, trial judges have simply carried out the mandate of the statute.

The Government nonetheless urges that we overlook Congress' choice of the imperative. Whatever might have been assumed in the past, we are now asked to construe the statute so as to eliminate the jury's power to fix the death penalty without the approval of the presiding judge. "[T]his reading," it is said, would conform "to the long tradition that makes the trial judge in the federal courts the arbiter of the sentence." And so it would. The difficulty is that Congress intentionally discarded that tradition when it passed the Federal Kidnaping Act. Over the forcefully articulated objection that jury sentencing would represent an unwarranted departure from settled federal practice, [n10] Congress rejected a version of the Kidnaping Act that would have [p576] left punishment to the court's discretion [n11] and, instead, chose an alternative that shifted from a single judge to a jury of 12 the onus of inflicting the penalty of death. [n12] To accept the Government's suggestion that the jury's sentencing role be treated as merely advisory would return to the judge the ultimate duty that Congress deliberately placed in other hands.

The thrust of the clause in question was clearly expressed by the House Judiciary Committee that drafted it: Its purpose was, quite simply, "to permit the jury to designate a death penalty for the kidnaper." [n13] The fact that Congress chose the word "recommend" to describe what the jury would do in designating punishment cannot obscure the basic congressional objective of making the jury, rather than the judge the arbiter of the death sentence. The Government's contrary contention cannot stand.

Equally untenable is the Government's argument that the Kidnaping Act authorizes a procedure unique in the federal system -- that of convening a special jury, without the defendant's consent, for the sole purpose of deciding [p577] whether he should be put to death. We are told initially that the Federal Kidnaping Act authorizes this procedure by implication. The Government's reasoning runs as follows: the Kidnaping Act permits the infliction of capital punishment whenever a jury so recommends. The Act does not state in so many words that the jury recommending capital punishment must be a jury impaneled to determine guilt as well. Therefore, the Act authorizes infliction of the death penalty on the recommendation of a jury specially convened to determine punishment. The Government finds support for this analysis in a Seventh Circuit decision construing the Federal Kidnaping Act to mean that the death penalty may be imposed whenever "an affirmative recommendation [is] made by a jury," including a jury convened solely for that purpose after the court has accepted a guilty plea. Seadlund v. United States, 97 F.2d 742, 748. Accord, Robinson v. United States, 264 F.Supp. 146, 153. But the statute does not say "a jury." It says "the jury." At least when the defendant demands trial by jury on the issue of guilt, the Government concedes that "the verdict of the jury" means what those words naturally suggest: the general verdict of conviction or acquittal returned by the jury that passes upon guilt or innocence. Thus, when such a jury has been convened, the statutory reference is to that jury alone, not to a jury impaneled after conviction for the limited purpose of determining punishment. [n14] Yet the Government argues that, when the issue of guilt has been tried to a judge or has been eliminated altogether by a plea of guilty, "the verdict of the jury" at once assumes a completely new meaning. In such a case, it is said, "the verdict of the jury" means the recommendation [p578] of a jury convened for the sole purpose of deciding whether the accused should live or die.

The Government would have us give the statute this strangely bifurcated meaning without the slightest indication that Congress contemplated any such scheme. Not a word in the legislative history so much as hints that a conviction on a plea of guilty or a conviction by a court sitting without a jury might be followed by a separate sentencing proceeding before a penalty jury. If the power to impanel such a jury had been recognized elsewhere in the federal system when Congress enacted the Federal Kidnaping Act, perhaps Congress' total silence on the subject could be viewed as a tacit incorporation of this sentencing practice into the new law. But the background against which Congress legislated was barren of any precedent for the sort of sentencing procedure we are told Congress impliedly authorized.

The Government nonetheless maintains that Congress' failure to provide for the infliction of the death penalty upon those who plead guilty or waive jury trial was no more than an oversight that the courts can and should correct. At least twice, Congress has expressly authorized the infliction of capital punishment upon defendants convicted without a jury, [n15] but even on the assumption [p579] that the failure of Congress to do so here was wholly inadvertent, it would hardly be the province of the courts to fashion a remedy. Any attempt to do so would be fraught with the gravest difficulties: if a special jury were convened to recommend a sentence, how would the penalty hearing proceed? What would each side be required to show? What standard of proof would govern? To what extent would conventional rules of evidence be abrogated? What privileges would the accused enjoy? Congress, unlike the state legislatures that have authorized jury proceedings to determine the penalty in capital cases, [n16] has addressed itself to none of these questions. [n17] [p580]

It is one thing to fill a minor gap in a statute to extrapolate from its general design details that were inadvertently omitted. It is quite another thing to create from whole cloth a complex and completely novel procedure and to thrust it upon unwilling defendants for the sole purpose of rescuing a statute from a charge of unconstitutionality. We recognize that trial judges sitting in federal kidnaping cases have on occasion chosen the latter course, attempting to fashion on an ad hoc basis the ground rules for penalty proceedings before a jury. [n18] We do not know what kinds of rules particular federal judges have adopted, how widely such rules have varied, or how fairly they have been applied. But one thing at least is clear: individuals forced to defend their lives in proceedings tailor-made for the occasion must do so without the guidance that defendants ordinarily find in a body of procedural and evidentiary rules spelled out in advance of trial. [n19] The Government notes with approval [p581] "the decisional trend which has sought . . . to place the most humane construction on capital legislation." Yet it asks us to extend the capital punishment provision of the Federal Kidnaping Act in a new and uncharted direction without the compulsion of a legislative mandate and without the benefit of legislative guidance. That we decline to do.

II

Under the Federal Kidnaping Act, therefore, the defendant who abandons the right to contest his guilt before a jury is assured that he cannot be executed; the defendant ingenuous enough to seek a jury acquittal stands forewarned that, if the jury finds him guilty and does not wish to spare his life, he will die. Our problem is to decide whether the Constitution permits the establishment of such a death penalty, applicable only to those defendants who assert the right to contest their guilt before a jury. The inevitable effect of any such provision is, of course, to discourage assertion of the Fifth Amendment right not to plead guilty [n20] and to deter exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial. If the provision had no other purpose or effect than to chill the assertion of constitutional rights by penalizing those who choose to exercise them, then it would be patently unconstitutional. But, as the Government notes, limiting the death penalty to cases where the jury recommends its imposition does have another objective: it avoids the more drastic alternative of mandatory [p582] capital punishment in every case. In this sense, the selective death penalty procedure established by the Federal Kidnaping Act may be viewed as ameliorating the severity of the more extreme punishment that Congress might have wished to provide. [n21]

The Government suggests that, because the Act thus operates "to mitigate the severity of punishment," it is irrelevant that it "may have the incidental effect of inducing defendants not to contest in full measure." [n22] We cannot agree. Whatever might be said of Congress' objectives, they cannot be pursued by means that needlessly chill the exercise of basic constitutional rights. Cf. United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258; Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 488-489. The question is not whether the chilling effect is "incidental", rather than intentional; the question is whether that effect is unnecessary, and therefore excessive. In this case, the answer to that question is clear. The Congress can, of course, mitigate the severity of capital punishment. The goal of limiting the death penalty to cases in which a jury recommends it is an entirely legitimate one. But that goal can be achieved without penalizing those defendants who plead not guilty and demand jury trial. In some States, for example, the choice between life imprisonment and capital punishment is left to a jury in every case -- regardless of how the defendant's guilt has been determined. [n23] Given the availability of this and other alternatives, it is clear that the selective death penalty provision of the Federal Kidnaping Act cannot be justified [p583] by its ostensible purpose. Whatever the power of Congress to impose a death penalty for violation of the Federal Kidnaping Act, Congress cannot impose such a penalty in a manner that needlessly penalizes the assertion of a constitutional right. See Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609. [n24]

It is no answer to urge, as does the Government, that federal trial judges may be relied upon to reject coerced pleas of guilty and involuntary waivers of jury trial. For the evil in the federal statute is not that it necessarily coerces guilty pleas and jury waivers, but simply that it needlessly encourages them. A procedure need not be inherently coercive in order that it be held to impose an impermissible burden upon the assertion of a constitutional right. Thus, the fact that the Federal Kidnaping Act tends to discourage defendants from insisting upon their innocence and demanding trial by jury hardly implies that every defendant who enters a guilty plea to a charge under the Act does so involuntarily. [n25] The power to reject coerced guilty pleas and involuntary jury waivers might alleviate, but it cannot totally eliminate, the constitutional infirmity in the capital punishment provision of the Federal Kidnaping Act. [p584]

The Government alternatively proposes that this Court, in the exercise of its supervisory powers, should simply instruct federal judges sitting in kidnaping cases to reject all attempts to waive jury trial and all efforts to plead guilty, however voluntary and well informed such attempted waivers and pleas might be. In that way, we could assure that every defendant charged in a federal court with aggravated kidnaping would face a possible death penalty, and that no defendant tried under the federal statute would be induced to forgo a constitutional right. But, of course, the inevitable consequence of this "solution" would be to force all defendants to submit to trial, however clear their guilt and however strong their desire to acknowledge it in order to spare themselves and their families the spectacle and expense of protracted courtroom proceedings. It is true that a defendant has no constitutional right to insist that he be tried by a judge, rather than a jury, Singer v. United States, 380 U.S. 24, and it is also true "that a criminal defendant has [no] absolute right to have his guilty plea accepted by the court." Lynch v. Overholser, 369 U.S. 705, 719. But the fact that jury waivers and guilty pleas may occasionally be rejected hardly implies that all defendants may be required to submit to a full-dress jury trial as a matter of course. Quite apart from the cruel impact of such a requirement upon those defendants who would greatly prefer not to contest their guilt, it is clear -- as even the Government recognizes -- that the automatic rejection of all guilty pleas "would rob the criminal process of much of its flexibility." As one federal court has observed: [n26]

The power of a court to accept a plea of guilty is traditional and fundamental. Its existence is necessary for the . . . practical . . . administration [p585] of the criminal law. Consequently, it should require an unambiguous expression on the part of the Congress to withhold this authority in specified cases.

If any such approach should be inaugurated in the administration of a federal criminal statute, we conclude that the impetus must come from Congress, not from this Court. The capital punishment provision of the Federal Kidnaping Act cannot be saved by judicial reconstruction.

III

The remaining question is whether the statute as a whole must fall simply because its death penalty clause is constitutionally deficient. The District Court evidently assumed that it must, for that court dismissed the kidnaping indictment. We disagree. As we said in Champlin Rfg. Co. v. Commission, 286 U.S. 210, 234:

The unconstitutionality of a part of an Act does not necessarily defeat . . . the validity of its remaining provisions. Unless it is evident that the legislature would not have enacted those provisions which are within its power independently of that which is not, the invalid part may be dropped if what is left is fully operative as a law. [n27] [p586]

Under this test, it is clear that the clause authorizing capital punishment is severable from the remainder of the kidnaping statute and that the unconstitutionality of that clause does not require the defeat of the law as a whole. See McDowell v. United States, 274 F.Supp. 426, 429. Cf. Spillers v. State, ___ Nev. ___, ___, 436 P.2d 18, 23-24.

The clause in question is a functionally independent part of the Federal Kidnaping Act. Its elimination in no way alters the substantive reach of the statute, and leaves completely unchanged its basic operation. Under such circumstances, it is quite inconceivable that the Congress which decided to authorize capital punishment in aggravated kidnaping cases would have chosen to discard the entire statute if informed that it could not include the death penalty clause now before us. [n28]

In this case, it happens that history confirms what common sense alone would suggest: the law, as originally enacted in 1932, contained no capital punishment provision. [n29] A majority of the House had favored the [p587] death penalty, but had yielded to opposition in the Senate as a matter of expediency. [n30] Only one Congressman had expressed the view that the law would not be worth enacting without capital punishment. [n31] The majority obviously felt otherwise. [n32] When the death penalty was added in 1934, the statute was left substantially unchanged [p588] in every other respect. [n33] The basic problem that had prompted enactment of the law in 1932 -- the difficulty of relying upon state and local authorities to [p589] investigate and prosecute interstate kidnaping [n34] -- had not vanished during the intervening two years. It is therefore clear that Congress would have made interstate kidnaping a federal crime even if the death penalty provision had been ruled out from the beginning. It would be difficult to imagine a more compelling case for severability.

In an effort to suggest the contrary, the appellees insist that the 1934 amendment "did not merely increase the penalties for kidnaping; it changed the whole thrust of the Act." They note that Congress deliberately limited [p590] capital punishment to those kidnapers whose victims are not liberated unharmed. Such a differential penalty provision, the appellees argue, is needed to discourage kidnapers from injuring those whom they abduct. [n35] The appellees contend that, without its capital punishment clause, the Federal Kidnaping Act would not distinguish "the penalties applicable to those who do and those who do not harm or kill their victims." Stressing the obvious congressional concern for the victim's safety, they conclude that "it is doubtful that Congress would intend for the statute to stand absent such a feature." This argument is wrong as a matter of history, for Congress enacted the statute "absent such a feature." [n36] It is [p591] wrong as a matter of fact, for the length of imprisonment imposed under the Act can obviously be made to reflect the kidnaper's treatment of his victim. And it is wrong as a matter of logic, for nothing could more completely obliterate the distinction between "the penalties applicable to those who do and those who do not harm or kill their victims" than the total invalidation of all the penalties provided by the Federal Kidnaping Act -- the precise result sought by the appellees.

Thus, the infirmity of the death penalty clause does not require the total frustration of Congress' basic purpose -- that of making interstate kidnaping a federal crime. By holding the death penalty clause of the Federal Kidnaping Act unenforceable, we leave the statute an operative whole, free of any constitutional objection. The appellees may be prosecuted for violating the Act, but they cannot be put to death under its authority.

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


WHITE, J., Dissenting Opinion

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

390 U.S. 570

United States v. Jackson

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT

No. 85 Argued: December 7, 1967 --- Decided: April 8, 1968
MR. JUSTICE WHITE, with whom MR. JUSTICE BLACK joins, dissenting.

The Court strikes down a provision of the Federal Kidnaping Act which authorizes only the jury to impose the death penalty. No question is raised about the death penalty itself, or about the propriety of jury participation in its imposition, but confining the power to impose the death penalty to the jury alone is held to [p592] burden impermissibly the right to a jury trial because it may either coerce or encourage persons to plead guilty or to waive a jury and be tried by the judge. In my view, however, if the vice of the provision is that it may interfere with the free choice of the defendant to have his guilt or innocence determined by a jury, the Court needlessly invalidates a major portion of an Act of Congress. The Court itself says that not every plea of guilty or waiver of jury trial would be influenced by the power of the jury to impose the death penalty. If this is so, I would not hold the provision unconstitutional, but would reverse the judgment, making it clear that pleas of guilty and waivers of jury trial should be carefully examined before they are accepted, in order to make sure that they have been neither coerced nor encouraged by the death penalty power in the jury.

Because this statute may be properly interpreted so as to avoid constitutional questions, I would not take the first step toward invalidation of statutes on their face because they arguably burden the right to jury trial.