U.S. Supreme Court

Breyer: Would Court-Eating Dog Excuse Late Deadline?


In oral arguments on Monday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg explored ways to allow the wife of a schizophrenic veteran who missed a filing deadline to pursue his appeal for additional disability benefits.

Lawyers for David Henderson, who died shortly before the case was argued, claimed his disability caused him to miss the deadline and the appeal should be allowed, the New York Times reports. No clear consensus emerged among the justices, according to USA Today.

Lawyers for the Department of Veterans Affairs say federal law sets a 120-day deadline for appeals of denied disability claims, and courts don’t have the authority to extend the time limit. The government lawyers cite the 2007 ruling Bowles v. Russell, in which the Supreme Court barred an appeal by a convicted murderer who filed late—but met an erroneous deadline set by a federal judge.

Ginsburg, who dissented in Bowles, suggested a distinction, the Times reports. The inmate in the Bowles case was trying to appeal from one court to another, while Henderson was appealing an agency decision to court. “Why wouldn’t it be a bright, clear line if we said, ‘Court to court, Bowles controls; agency to court, Bowles does not apply’?” Ginsburg asked.

Breyer tried to find a hypothetical case that would allow for a flexible deadline, with some help from Justice Antonin Scalia, who said he didn’t have a lot of sympathy for missed deadlines. A transcript (PDF) has the exchange:

Breyer: What is an example of a case where a person, for an incredible, equitable strong reason, such as the wind blew his paper—I don’t know, some tremendously equitable, strong reason he wants review of an agency action—

Scalia: The dog ate it, maybe.

Breyer: Yes. Right. The dog ate the court.

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