SCOTUS hears oral arguments in Wilkins v. US: What to know
Judges were jubilant as they heard hearings on Wednesday Wilkins v United States, an argument with underlying facts pertinent to an episode of yellowstone: Montana landowners are suing the federal government for closing off their land with an improper easement. At stake, however, is not the judges’ views on the western wilderness, but rather whether the federal government’s 12-year statute of limitations on lawsuits applies to the landowners, even though recent SCOTUS rulings might indicate otherwise in other cases.
Larry Steven “Wil” Wilkins (a veteran living with post-traumatic stress disorder) and his neighbor Jane Stanton (a widow living across Robbins Gulch Road from Wilkins) granted an easement to the US Forest Service in 1962. Under the terms of the easement, the federal government was permitted to maintain a road across privately owned land. The easement functioned without major incident until 2006, when the Forest Service put up a sign saying “Public access through private land.”
Wilkins and Stanton said that since the sign was put up there have been all sorts of troubles on the road. They claim “to deal with intruders on their private property, theft of their personal belongings, people who have shot at their homes, people who hunt both on and off the easement, and people who travel [sic] at Dangerous Speed” – and once the shooting of Wilkins’ cat by a passing traveler.
Frequent use of the easement has also caused soil erosion, which in turn has led to sediment deposition on neighboring properties; these lands then suffered ‘leaching’, posing a serious problem for the future use of the land. Meanwhile, plaintiffs allege that despite their many requests for assistance, the Forest Service has done less and less to maintain its easement.
Wilkins and Stanton eventually sued, and the dispute before the judges Wednesday relates to the timing of that lawsuit. The lower court said, and the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit I Agreethat plaintiffs’ lawsuit came too late because it had been filed after the 12-year limitation period had expired.
Federal law prevails Quiet Title Act, which gives litigants 12 years to assert their claims. The legal question before the judges is whether this statute of limitations is a “judicial” or a “claims-handling” rule. If the judges say it’s a court order, then the rule goes to the court to hear the case, and the landowners will lose. On the other hand, if the rule is viewed simply as a procedural rule for processing claims, Wilkins and Stanton may still have an opportunity to proceed with their lawsuit due to the plaintiffs’ delay could be excused as a remedy.
The complainants’ arguments are largely based on a SCOTUS decision from 2021 Böchler against Commissioner in which SCOTUS ruled against the Internal Revenue Service that 30 days’ notice was not competent in a tax case and was therefore subject to a reasonable toll charge. The dispute before the judges raises an important question: Should SCOTUS follow a modern trend of its own creation that requires “judicial” laws to reflect its nature in its own wording, or should it adhere to older precedents, particularly those related to the Quiet Title Act?
When the judges heard the lawyer Jeffrey McCoys Arguing on behalf of the appellants, they flippantly entertained the idea of substituting their own judgment for the legislature.
Chief Justice John Roberts initially seemed inclined to avoid the central question of the case altogether. At one point, Roberts questioned McCoy at length, asking why the distinction between jurisdiction and claims handling mattered at all.
“Either way, you lose,” Roberts told McCoy, explaining, “Twelve years is twelve years.”
justice Samuel Alito McCoy urged whether to ask the court to adopt a “magic word test” where the exact language of the law would automatically dictate the result.
justice Ketanji Brown Jackson expressed concerns about how a ruling in McCoy’s favor could conflict with previous rulings, calling McCoy’s proposed legal framework “a really messy and strange way” to solve the legal problem at the heart of the case.
justice Amy Coney Barrett was also concerned that SCOTUS is going off its legal track by attributing meaning to a law that Congress may not have intended.
The Chief Justice returned to the microphone with a lengthy commentary on the Supreme Court’s current process of interpreting laws.
“Back in the fighting days, when we had a statute on interpreting, we looked at all sorts of things: hearings, reports, testimonies, all sorts of things, sometimes at the expense of actual language,” Roberts began, noting, “Look these days we at [a statute’s actual language] much more carefully.”
Roberts continued his question, asking what was even supposed to happen Outside in connection with statutes of limitations. He asked what to do when the Supreme Court’s modern system of interpretation conflicts with what the Supreme Court has done in the past:
When we have interpreted the meaning of a law and look at what we were doing in 1950 – and there the court relied on all this extra-legal material, and now that we have a different approach – we are supposed to go back and say “that was then and that’s now and now we’re trying to look at the simple language first and foremost”? Let’s do this?
As Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Snyder took the podium for the federal government, arguing that judges should decide the case by adhering to the “established principle” of the judiciary Clarence Thomas asked what the plain text of the law might mean.
“Could you come to the same conclusion from reading the bylaws?” asked Thomas after Snyder’s argument.
As Alito took up the questioning, he asked a question about how the Supreme Court should interpret its own precedent to rule the present case. Alito’s question contained a deference rigid decision that stood out against the backdrop of Alito’s recent willingness to ignore long-established precedents.
“We’re often asked to decide what we actually recorded in a previous case because that’s important rigid decision purposes,” Alito said.
He then asked Snyder, “Do you think that the test used to determine what we had in a previous case, and therefore what is caused by smake a decision is different in this context?” — referring to the specific legal context of the statute of limitations of the Quiet Title Act.
The question may not be particularly noteworthy if it comes from another jurisdiction. But from Alito, characterizing the casual remark rigid decision as a concept that steadfastly protects previous decisions, was completely inconsistent with his recent actions.
Overruled in Alito’s bomb decision Roe v. calf That’s what the judiciary said last summer rigid decision sometimes has to take a back seat when SCOTUS has to “correct our own mistake”. Alito went on to support his argument with examples of now overturned precedents (such as Plessy v. Fergusonfor one) that were as “flawed” as roe was.
justice Neil Gorsuch joined the conversation on Wednesday when he warned the federal government not to rely too heavily on every word contained in SCOTUS decisions.
“When we’re trying to figure out what we know in a previous case versus what’s irrelevant, we’ve often cautioned the parties against reading our opinions like laws and giving every word a talismanic effect,” Gorsuch said.
That Wilkins The case is an unusual inclusion on the Supreme Court list because judges do not often consider the very local disputes of rural Montanans. However, the case has given judges an opportunity to make a broader statement on the interpretation of the law, use of previous precedent, and the federal government’s power to set strict rules on time limits for raising disputes.
You can listen to the full oral presentations here.
[Image via Alex Wong/Getty Images]
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