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Case Dismissed as Untimely Even Though Judge Granted Extension

Most of us lawyers know that we can't rely on advice from government officials or court clerks and, instead, need to verify and corroborate whatever they tell us. But now, this advice of "don't trust and verify" also applies to an order granting an extension of time to file an appeal duly issued by a federal judge. At least, that's the state of affairs in the aftermath of yesterday's Supreme Court decision in Bowles v. Russell

As summarized in this coverage of the case by Tony Mauro, convicted murderr Keith Bowles was denied habeas relief, with 30 days to appeal. The federal rules of appellate procedure allowed for a 14-day extension of time to file an appeal, but federal Judge Donald Nugent (identified in Mauro's article, but not the Supreme Court decision) gave Bowles 17 days. Bowles filed his notice of appeal on day 16 -- within the time permitted by the judge, but outside the extension period authorized by statute. At the 6th Circuit, the state argued that the court lacked jurisdiction over the appeal, since it was filed beyond the period authorized by statute. The 6th Circuit agreed, and the Supreme Court affirmed its ruling.

Writing for the majority of five, Justice Thomas explained that a judicial order could not extend a deadline mandated by statute, even under a doctrine of "unique circumstances." The majority instead clarified and emphasized that:

timely filing of a notice of appeal in a civil case is a jurisdictional requirement. Because this Court has no authority to create equitable exceptions to jurisdictional requirements, use of the “unique circumstances” doctrine is illegitimate.

Souter, writing for the dissenters, expressed outrage at the decision. He argued:

It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for condoning this bait and switch.

He explained that the term "jurisdiction" has many meanings -- and "the stakes are high in treating time limits as jurisdictional."

There's mixed reaction to the decision around the blogosphere. At Crime and Consequences, Kent Scheidegger writes here that the ruling wont' affect habeas statute of limitations, which are not jurisdictional -- and notes that the dissent is in line with recent trends to cut back on what is considered "jurisdictional."

And at this post at Prawfs Law Blawg, Stewart Green writes that the Supreme Court's decision has gotten him thinking about whether to confer mercy not on defendants who make untimely filings but students who turn work in on time. Green ponders:

Should one just accept the paper and get on with the grading?  Should one accept it but find some appropriate penalty (and, if so, what should that be)?  Or should one refuse to accept it at all?  More generally, what is the appropriate mix of factors one should consider in dealing with these problems?  Should one’s primary concern be with professional development?  After all, if the student doesn’t learn to hand in her papers on time while in law school, won’t she be developing bad work habits that she will carry with her into practice, when a late filing could result in dismissal and a subsequent malpractice suit?  On the other hand, is it really one’s job, as a professor, to impart these kinds of values to students who haven’t already learned them by the time they’ve gotten to law school? Perhaps one’s primary concern should be with fairness to other students.  But what exactly does that mean?  If the paper comes in an hour late, how much of an advantage is that?   Or perhaps one should endeavor to display the kind of compassion and caring that one hopes one’s students will demonstrate when they someday are in a position of power. Try as I might to solve these kinds of problems with my head, I usually end up deciding them with my heart, and a heavy bleeder mine happens to be.  I suppose the same can be said of the Justices.  The issue in Bowles was not the kind that could be decided through any grand theory of statutory interpretation.  It’s the kind of decision that one makes with one’s heart, and one’s soul.  Was it really any surprise that the Court’s majority opinion should have been written by Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia?  And that the dissent was written by Justice Souter? 

As an appellate practitioner, I'm cognizant that missing deadlines often carries jurisdictional consequences. Thus, I always try to abide by deadlines and don't bother asking for waivers. But if a federally appointed judge gave me the go-ahead to file outside of a deadline, at best, I'd be confused, and at worst, I'd follow the judge's order and wind up missing the deadline, just like Bowles did. I agree with Thomas that deadlines are important to our judicial system -- but isn't the ability to rely on the word of a judge equally important? For that reason, I come out with the dissent in this case.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 15, 2007 at 05:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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