Is the United States Supreme Court a Court of Law? Is It a Court of Justice?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 17th, 2007

If you think the Supreme Court lost its credibility and legitimacy in Bush v. Gore–the only instance of the Court effectively choosing the next president–consider the following case reported today in the New York Times:

If the Supreme Court, with its new conservative majority, wanted to announce that it was getting out of the fairness business, it could hardly have done better than its decision last week in the case of Keith Bowles. The court took away Mr. Bowles’s right to challenge his murder conviction in a ruling that was so wrong and mean-spirited that it seemed like an outtake from MTV’s practical joke show “Punk’d.”

Mr. Bowles, an Ohio inmate, challenged his conviction in federal district court and lost. The court told Mr. Bowles that he had until Feb. 27 to appeal. He filed the appeal on Feb. 26, and was ready to argue why he was wrongly convicted. But it turned out the district court made a mistake. The appeal should have been filed by Feb. 24.

The Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, in a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, that Mr. Bowles was out of luck, and his appeal was invalid. So much for heeding a federal judge.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, insisted that “We have long and repeatedly held that the time limits for filing a notice of appeal are jurisdictional in nature.” Fine! But why is there no equitable remedy? The petitioner relied upon the mistake of a federal district court. Justice Thomas is unmoved. A deadline is a deadline. “Accordingly, we hold that petitioner’s untimely notice — even though filed in reliance upon a District Court’s order — deprived the Court of Appeals of jurisdiction” This brittle opinion discredits the Court and flies in the face of fairness. The Court needs to learn that absolute rules applied absolutely–that is, without the possibility of exception–create absolute injustice. As Justice Souter, in dissent, exclaimed: “It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way.” The Supreme Court has “the authority to recognize an equitable exception to the 14-day limit, and we should do that here, as it certainly seems reasonable to rely on an order from a federal judge.” Commonsense? Not for a majority of the current Supreme Court.


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