Court proceedings are rarely perfect – far from it. Errors happen regularly before and during litigation, and when they do, courts must decide how to handle them. Gone are the days when a typo might demand a new trial: many errors – typos certainly, but also much more serious mistakes – are regularly deemed harmless by the court, meaning those errors had no prejudicial effect on the outcome of the case (and so do not warrant a new trial). Yet even after the development of the harmless-error doctrine in the early part of the twentieth century, errors involving constitutional rights were de facto prejudicial: if a defendant could identify a constitutional error then he was entitled to a new trial. This rule, too, eventually gave way: by the late 1960s the United States Supreme Court had ruled that most constitutional errors were susceptible to harmless error analysis. But there has remained a narrow set of constitutional errors that, once identified, still automatically entitle a defendant to a new trial. These are called “structural errors,” and are the topic of this Article.

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