Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Second Department

Legal Studies

Reader 1

Ralph Rossum

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The United States Constitution had been in existence for almost two hundred years before the Supreme Court decided that some violations of constitutional rights may be too insignificant to warrant remedial action. Known as "harmless error," this statutory doctrine allows a court to affirm a conviction when a mere technicality or minor defect did not affect the defendant's substantial rights. The doctrine aims to promote judicial efficiency and judgment finality. The Court first applied harmless error to constitutional violations by shifting the statutory test away from the error's effect on substantial rights to its impact on the jury's verdict. Over time, the test evolved even further, now allowing a court to disregard the constitutional error when a majority of justices believe that the untainted record evidence shows that the defendant is, in fact, guilty. This sacrifice of individual and institutional constitutional protections at the altar of judicial efficiency and judgment finality subverts the harmless error doctrine's purposes and strikes at the core of America's founding ideals. In particular, it allows appellate courts to invade the jury's role as the finder of fact and guilt, to sidestep their constitutional role to review and correct errors and protect the Constitution, and to incentivize government actors to commit constitutional violations with little-to-no ramifications. After conducting a comprehensive review of the harmless error doctrine and its development, this thesis traces through many substantive, theoretical, and practical problems with the doctrine's current application. It then proposes that the Constitution and the values that it protects should once again be elevated above the harmless error doctrine's pragmatic concerns of judicial efficiency and judgment finality.