Saturday, June 16, 2007

LOST PANTS SUIT v THE SUPREME COURT

It is a toss-up for me as to whether the nation's perception of our judicial system is injured more by the judge who is suing for $54 million over his lost trousers or by the Supreme Court's decision dismissing an appeal that was filed within the time period specifically allowed by a federal judge----on the grounds that it was filed too late!

In Bowles v. Russell the petitioner moved to extend the period for filing a notice of appeal. The District Court granted the motion and granted him 17 days to file, rather than the 14 days authorized by the applicable Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure. He filed within the time period prescribed by the District Court order. The Sixth Circuit dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the notice was untimely, and the Supreme Court affirmed, agreeing that, as a result of the untimely filing and despite the petitioner's reliance upon the District Court's order, the Sixth Circuit had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

The basis for the ruling was that the time period prescribed by Congress was "mandatory and jurisdictional". In doing so the majority chose to ignore that line of cases holding that time prescriptions are not jurisdictional, unless Congress has specifically designated them so. But even if the majority's analysis is correct, it not only failed to create an exception based upon the petitioner's reliance upon the District Court's order, but rather chose to overrule existing decisions which would have saved the appeal. I suppose that one cannot argue with the logic that if the time period is "jurisdictional" that a court cannot confer jurisdiction after it ceases to exist, and that neither"unique" nor any other kind of circumstances can confer jurisdiction that has already expired. But this case does not involve a delineation of the kinds of cases that federal courts may hear but rather a rule for processing claims in those matters over which the courts have jurisdiction.

But consider these circumstances: The error was brought about solely by the court. The petitioner neither contributed to nor caused it. Actually it is inaccurate to say that the District Court extended the time to 17 days. The Court actually fixed the date by which the appeal was to be filed, and it turned out be 17 days. The mere date would not have put the petitioner or his counsel on notice unless they calculated the elapsed time. There is nothing to indicate that the notice of appeal could not or would not have been filed within the 14 day period, if the order had required it, nor is there any evidence that any party was prejudiced by the 2 day delay. No objection was made by the respondent to the extension, presumably because neither counsel noticed it.

The bottom line is we have an appeal dismissed in a murder case (notwithstanding that petitioner filed his notice of appeal in accordance with the time specifically granted him by a United States District Court) on the grounds that the Court exceeded its authority in fixing the time through no fault of the petitioner. Has strict construction replaced all sense of fairness?

1 comment:

DCA said...

A non-lawyers view--the pants case does not seem as bad, because the plaintiff comes across as a special case--and rather deranged. The only way the justice system seems at fault is allowing this to go forward, wasting everyone's time, rather than sending it off to small claims. (Is this product of the 10-dollar jury trial amendment [to show my ignorance]?).

The Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit come off much worse, for here we have the upper reaches of the law behaving, as a collective, most pettifoggingly. Here the law does appear to be as ass.