Beware of the Judge

Sunday, June 17, 2007

KEITH BOWLES was convicted of murder in an Ohio state court and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. As was his right, Mr. Bowles challenged his conviction in federal court. He lost, though the judge and the clerk in the case didn't let him know before the deadline for appealing. When he learned of the ruling, Mr. Bowles asked for extra time. The judge agreed -- and gave Mr. Bowles 17 days. Mr. Bowles filed his notice of appeal 16 days later. Trouble was, despite the judge's instructions, the law that sets out the time frame for such actions provides for only a 14-day extension. On Thursday, the Supreme Court, splitting 5 to 4, threw out Mr. Bowles's claim, ruling that even though he had complied with the judge's order, he was still too late.

This may not be the most momentous legal issue of the term -- unless, of course, you are Mr. Bowles -- but it is a sad example of miserly jurisprudence. The majority opinion, by Justice Clarence Thomas, insisted that the court was left with no choice but to dismiss the case; these time limits, Justice Thomas said, are "jurisdictional," and failing to comply with them, for whatever reason, divests courts of the ability to hear the claim. In less legalistic language: tough luck.

In fact, as the dissent by Justice David H. Souter pointed out, the majority was not in any way bound to reach this manifestly unjust result; indeed, it had to ignore and overrule precedents to keep Mr. Bowles out of court. In a pair of cases in the 1960s, the court had said that failing to meet statutory filing deadlines could be excused in "unique circumstances." The majority dismissed those cases on the grounds of their "40-year slumber" and said they were wrongly decided in any event.

But as the dissenters argued, federal judges have more flexibility than the majority's overly rigid approach allows. "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," Justice Souter wrote. It "certainly seems reasonable to rely on an order from a federal judge," he noted -- "unless every statement by a federal court is to be tagged with the warning 'Beware of the Judge.' "

Beware of this court may be more like it.

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