January 30, 2008
Supremes on Stare Decisis/Acquiesence - John R. Sand
I don't know why this just got to me from Westlaw, but on January 8, 2008 the Court issued a 7-2 decision in John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. U.S., 128 S.Ct. 750 (2008). The case involved an interesting mix of substance and procedure.
Plaintiff sued in the Federal Claims court, alleging that the EPA had engaged in activities that constituted a "taking" of certain land. The Government timely asserted that the claims were barred by a somewhat unusual statute of limitation in 28 USC 2501, which required every claim "of which the U.S. Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction shall be barred unless the petition thereon is filed within six years after such claim first accrues." The Government later admitted some claims were not barred, but contended others were. Later, on the merits, it prevailed.
Then the sand & gravel company appealed to the Federal Circuit. The government's brief in response, however, said nothing about how the claims were barred by Section 2501, but an amicus brief pointed it out to the CAFC, which held it could address whether the claims were barred by limitations despite the government failing to raise the issue on appeal.
The question the Court faced was whether the CAFC properly ignored the government's waiver of what, typically, is an affirmative defense.
The Court affirmed, 7-2. In doing so, the majority relied on cases from the 1880's holding that the usual requirement that limitations be pled "has no application to suits in the Court of Claims against the" US. It then cited a few other cases, one from 1957, and all the rest from the late 1800's that, the majority stated, said basically the same thing.
Because the language of Section 2501 had not been materially changed, the majority reasoned that, unless the old interpretation should be overruled, the CAFC's decision was correct. It refused to overrule the old interpretation, even though subsequently the Court had adopted a different approach to government-related statutes of limitations, giving less weight to the government's interest and treating it more like a private citizen.
The majority found nothing to warrant reversing its long-standing interpretation of this case, noting among other things that "stare decisis in respect to statutory interpretation has 'special force' for 'Congress remains free to alter what we have done" and "Congress has long acquiesced in the interpretation we have given."
Justice Stevens (joined by Ginsburg) dissented. They emphasized that the "newer" interpretive rule had been characterized as "a realistic assessment of legislative intent" and a "practically useful principle of interpretation." Thus, to them, it made sense to apply a more accurate interpretive approach to this statute rather than applying the long-standing interpretation. Interestingly to me, they argued that stare decisis had no special force where, as here, an "obscure statutory provision" was in issue and "legislation is by no means a cost-free enterprise."
Finally, Justice Ginsburg also wrote her own dissenting opinion, emphasizing that a uniform approach to statutory interpretation of this sort of statute outweighed the stare decisis benefit.
Interesting case. As noted just below, to me it makes little sense to presume Congress knew about a few cases back in 1887 and "acquiesced" in the interpretation of this odd little statute. A more pragmatic approach might be better, if you ask me.
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