Supreme Court Decision on Failure to Meet Administrative Agency Time Limits (VA)

As many will recall, in 2007, in an opinion that may felt was harsh and unrealistic, the Supreme Court ruled that when a habeas petitioner failed to file within a statutorily required period, even though the court had granted a longer extension, the appeal was untimely.  Bowles v. Russel, 551 U. S. 205 (2007).

Yesterday, the Court, in Henderson v. Sheniki, per Justice Alito,  without of course overruling Bowles in any way, crafted a more flexible rule for determining its future determinations as to whether a particular rule was jurisdictional.  Unlike in the prior case, which might be read to say that all statutory time lines are  jurisdictional, yesterday’s opinion allows for a process of reading legislative intent.  In this case, and perhaps more generally, the fact that this was an administrative agency, intended to be navigated veterans, caused in the Court to treat this as non-jurisdictional.  (The court is not explicit about the likelihood of the absence of counsel, but this is surely implicit in the situation and analysis.)

This portion of the sylabus summarizing the standard itself is useful to read in full.

(a) Branding a procedural rule as going to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction alters the normal operation of the adversarial system. Federal courts have an independent obligation to ensure that they do not exceed the scope of their subject-matter jurisdiction and thus must raise and decide jurisdictional questions that the parties either overlook or elect not to press. Jurisdictional rules may also cause a waste of judicial resources and may unfairly prejudice litigants, since objections may be raised at any time, even after trial. Because of these drastic consequences, this Court has urged that a rule should not be referred to as jurisdictional unless it governs a court’s adjudicatory capacity, i.e., its subject-matter or personal jurisdiction. E.g., Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick , 559 U. S. ___, ___. Among the rules that should not be described as jurisdictional are “claim-processing rules,” which seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring parties to take certain procedural steps at specified times. Although filing deadlines are quintessential claim-processing rules, Congress is free to attach jurisdictional consequences to such rules. Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp. , 546 U. S. 500 , applied a “readily administrable bright line” rule to determine whether Congress has done so: There must be a “clear” indication that Congress wanted the rule to be “jurisdictional.” Id., at 515–516. “[C]ontext, including this Court’s interpretation of similar provisions in many years past, is relevant,” Reed Elsevier , supra , at ___, to whether Congress has spoken clearly on this point. Pp. 4–6.

For the future, this case might be cited for the following:

  • Need for flexibility in interpreting administrative agency rules, including those involving time lines.
  • Need for congress (and arguably by extension, state legislatures) to be explicit if it wants a deadline to be jurisdictional and not waivable.
  • Need to take into account, at least in administrative agency situations, who is intended to be helped/served, by agency.

Other readings or ideas?


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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