Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published house editorials (here and here) sharply critical of the Court’s 5-4 ruling last Thursday in Bowles v. Russell. In that case, Justice Thomas’s majority opinion (joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito) ruled that the time limits for filing a notice of appeal are jurisdictional in nature and that the courts have no authority to create equitable exceptions to jurisdictional requirements. The majority therefore held that the notice of appeal that a habeas petitioner, Bowles, filed was untimely—the relevant statutory filing period was 14 days from the district court’s order reopening the appeal period, and the petitioner filed his notice on the 16th day (February 26, 2004)—and that the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction to consider Bowles’s appeal.
This ruling would not be particularly noteworthy but for one unfortunate fact: it seems clear (and the majority expressly accepts) that Bowles filed his notice of appeal late because he relied on an order by the district court that erroneously stated that Bowles had until February 27, 2004—day 17—to file his notice of appeal. Thus, in Bowles’s case the majority’s understanding of the law produces a result that seems quite unfair to Bowles.
To say that the result in Bowles’s case is unfair to him is not, however, to say that the majority got it wrong. (Nor, of course, is it to say that the majority got it right.) The role of the Court is not to try to produce an intuitively fair result in every case that comes before it, but rather to decide what the law means and to apply it neutrally. Jurisdictional time limits will inevitably produce some particular results that are unfair. That fact is one part of the calculus that the legislature should have in mind in enacting rules, and it may also bear on how the courts construe the rules that the legislature has enacted, but it is not a reason for the court to read the law to mean something other than what it in fact means.
Having read both the majority opinion and Justice Souter’s dissent, I’m sure that I’ve read at least as much as the Times and Post editorialists. Without digging deeper into the underlying case law that the opinions dispute, I can’t form a firm judgment as to who has it right. I’ll limit myself to noting two points that don’t appear in either editorial:
1. As the majority opinion points out, a unanimous ruling of the Court in 2004 specifically identified the very statute at issue in Bowles as setting forth a jurisdictional time limit. (In a footnote, Souter’s dissent argues that cases since 2004 should be understood to show otherwise.)
2. Those focusing only on the perceived equities might find of interest that Bowles indisputably did not file, or seek to file, a notice of appeal within the ordinary 30-day period that runs from entry of final judgment. That’s why he moved (successfully) to reopen the filing period.