WASHINGTON — Justice Stephen G. Breyer wanted to know whether it was possible that Congress intended to deny help to veterans who missed filing deadlines because of the very disabilities for which they sought help.
“You have someone who served his country and was wounded and has post-traumatic stress syndrome or schizophrenia,” Justice Breyer said at a Supreme Court argument Dec. 6. “Who in Congress would have likely thought such a thing?”
But the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit last year ruled that Congress had indeed meant to bar the courthouse door to David L. Henderson, who served on the front lines in the Korean War and was discharged after receiving a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. That disability, his lawyers said, caused him to bungle a deadline.
The appeals court said its ruling was required by a 2007 decision of the Supreme Court that said deadlines for filing appeals must be applied strictly.
The appeals court’s ruling in the Henderson case, according to a dissent from three of its judges, created “a Kafkaesque adjudicatory process in which those veterans who are most deserving of service-connected benefits will frequently be those least likely to obtain them.”
Mr. Henderson, who died while his Supreme Court case was pending, had sought additional government help for his condition in 2001. He was turned down in 2004. A federal law gave him 120 days to appeal that determination to the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, but it took him 135 days.
He sought leniency. His psychiatrist testified that “Mr. Henderson has been incapable of understanding and meeting deadlines” because he was “incapable of rational thought or deliberate decision-making.”
But the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision, Bowles v. Russell, said that deadlines for filing appeals were “jurisdictional,” meaning they are not subject to exceptions or excuses.
The Bowles case concerned an inmate who missed a deadline because he had been given erroneous instructions by a federal judge. Justice David H. Souter, in a dissent also signed by three other justices, said that “it is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way.”
On Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had joined that dissent, said the Bowles decision was “a substantial hurdle to contend with.” Justice Antonin Scalia went further, saying approvingly that “Bowles was a nice, clear case.”
Mr. Henderson’s lawyer, Lisa S. Blatt, said the two cases were different, in part because of the special status of the court to which her client had tried to appeal.
“Congress established this court to open the door to veterans seeking disability benefits,” Ms. Blatt said, “and it would just conflict with that purpose to, at the same time, shut the door when the veteran’s disability prevents him from getting to the courthouse.”
Some justices said there was a second distinction. The inmate in the Bowles case had tried to appeal from one court to another, while Mr. Henderson sought to appeal the determination of an agency to a 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’?” Justice Ginsburg asked.
Eric D. Miller, a lawyer for the federal government, said, “The same principle applies for appeals from agencies.”
He added that “just about everybody” agreed that some late filings would be allowed in a perfect world — but not under the current law. Indeed, he said, the Department of Veterans Affairs has asked Congress to add flexibility to the system.
As in many cases, Justices Breyer and Scalia disagreed about how to determine the meaning of the statute before them.
Justice Scalia said the court should rely solely on the text of the law to determine the correct result in the case, Henderson v. Shinseki, No.09-1036.
“Don’t we pretty much have to go on what they wrote?” he asked.
Justice Breyer, on the other hand, said he would “try to work out from context, language and objective purpose what a reasonable member of Congress would have intended.”
But the two more or less agreed on what would be an example of a strong hypothetical case for imposing a flexible deadline.
“The dog ate it, maybe,” Justice Scalia said.
“Yes,” Justice Breyer said. “Right. The dog ate the court.”
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
From The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 9:25 AM