A structural error is a defect affecting the framework within which the trial proceeds, rather than simply an error in the trial process itself.

A structural error is an error that necessarily renders a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence.

A structural error is one in which the effects of the error are simply too hard to measure, such as when a defendant is denied the right to select his or her own attorney, and the precise effect of the violation cannot be ascertained.  Because the government will, as a result, find it almost impossible to show that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the efficiency costs of letting the government try to make the showing are unjustified.

REFERENCE DESK

Weaver v. Massachusetts, 582 U.S. ___ (2017):

The concept of structural error can be discussed first.  In Chapman v. California, 368 U.S. 18 (1967), this Court “adopted the general rule that a constitutional error does not automatically require reversal of a conviction.” If the government can show “beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained,” the Court held, then the error is deemed harmless and the defendant is not entitled to reversal.

The Court recognized, however, that some errors should not be deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  These errors came to be known as structural errors. The purpose of the structural error doctrine is to ensure insistence on certain basic, constitutional guarantees that should define the framework of any criminal trial. Thus, the defining feature of a structural error is that it “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” rather than being “simply an error in the trial process itself.”  For the same reason, a structural error “def[ies] analysis by harmless error standards.”

The precise reason why a particular error is not amenable to that kind of analysis — and thus the precise reason why the Court has deemed it structural — varies in a significant way from error to error. There appear to be at least three broad rationales.

First, an error has been deemed structural in some instances if the right at issue is not designed to protect the defendant from erroneous conviction but instead protects some other interest. This is true of the defendant’s right to conduct his own defense, which, when exercised, “usually increases the likelihood of a trial outcome unfavorable to the defendant.”  That right is based on the fundamental legal principle that a defendant must be allowed to make his own choices about the proper way to protect his own liberty.  Because harm is irrelevant to the basis underlying the right, the Court has deemed a violation of that right structural error.

Second, an error has been deemed structural if the effects of the error are simply too hard to measure. For example, when a defendant is denied the right to select his or her own attorney, the precise “effect of the violation cannot be ascertained.”  Because the government will, as a result, find it almost impossible to show that the error was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the efficiency costs of letting the government try to make the showing are unjustified.

Third, an error has been deemed structural if the error always results in fundamental unfairness. For example, if an indigent defendant is denied an attorney or if the judge fails to give a reasonable-doubt instruction, the resulting trial is always a fundamentally unfair one. See Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 343-345 (1963) (right to an attorney); Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 279 (1993) (right to a reasonable-doubt instruction). It therefore would be futile for the government to try to show harmlessness.

These categories are not rigid. In a particular case, more than one of these rationales may be part of the explanation for why an error is deemed to be structural. For these purposes, however, one point is critical: An error can count as structural even if the error does not lead to fundamental unfairness in every case.

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