The Supreme Court issued a single opinion today. Wilkins v. United States concerns a property rights dispute between the federal government and two owners of land near the Bitterroot National Forest in rural Montana to which the government claims an easement that, it argues, includes public access, which the petitioners dispute. They, therefore, sued the government under the Quiet Title Act (the “Act”), which allows challenges to the United States’ rights in real property. The government moved to dismiss on the ground that the petitioners’ claim is barred by the Act’s 12-year statute of limitations. See 28 U. S. C. §2409a(g). The issue before the Court was whether the time bar is jurisdictional or, as the Court held in a 6-3 decision, a nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule.
Not all of the readers of this blog are interested in property rights disputes, but many are indeed interested in whether a statute might be held to be jurisdictional, thus requiring the automatic dismissal of the case to which it applies. And many casual readers will be interested in the split among the Justices, which might challenge their expectations. Those readers will chew on an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor and joined not only by her liberal colleagues, Justices Kagan and Jackson, but also by conservative Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Thomas wrote in dissent, and he was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito.
Noting that “jurisdiction” is a word of many meanings, Justice Sotomayor recalled that the Court has drawn a strong distinction between “the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction)” and “nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules, which seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times.” Fort Bend County v. Davis, 587 U.S. ___, ___. While a party must satisfy or exhaust a number of threshold requirements before a viable lawsuit can be filed under a nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule, a jurisdictional bar may be raised by any party, or the court, at any time during a proceeding. Because those jurisdictional bars entail the risk of disruption and waste, they will be construed as such only if Congress “clearly states” that they are, in fact, “jurisdictional.” As a result, most statutory limitations are interpreted as “nonjurisdictional.” And given the Court’s determination that §2409a(g)’s text or context provides no such clarity, it held that the lawsuit may proceed and so remanded the case.
In disagreement with the dissenters, the majority ruled that none of the three decisions of the Court on which the government relied could be “definitively interpreted” as jurisdictional. To the extent that any reference to such a term had been made in these cases, it was no more than “drive-by” dictum that, in the absence of the establishment of any threshold precondition, has no “precedential effect.”
While not a decision that will be of direct use to many of my readers, it is one that puts an additional gloss on the intra-Court debate about stare decisis and provides useful guidance of broader relevance in applying textualism arguments and dealing with claims concerning jurisdictional time bars. Besides confounding various expectations as to how a particular Justice might vote or align with colleagues, the alignment here might be explainable by the libertarian tendencies and influence of Justice Gorsuch and the more formalistic rules-oriented leanings of the dissenters. In any event, while the media and many commentators and observers claim that the Justices are somehow locked into immutable, and warring, blocs derivative of political party leanings, this case is one more piece of evidence that such a simplistic view is erroneous.
- Member of the Firm