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Judge’s errors count as mistakes under federal law, Supreme Court finds

The lone dissenter, Justice Neil Gorsuch, lamented the high court’s decision to take up an issue that only applies in rare circumstances.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In an 8-1 decision on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a criminal defendant fighting a mistake made by a judge during the appeal of his conviction. 

Dexter Kemp was convicted on drug and gun crimes and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The 11th Circuit affirmed his conviction and sentence on appeal in 2013. In 2015, Kemp asked a district court to vacate his sentence under claims that it was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such a sentence. The district court dismissed the motion. 

Two years later, Kemp attempted to reopen his case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Kemp claimed his motion should be reconsidered because of a mistake concerning a timing issue that occurred during his rehearing. The district court rejected Kemp’s argument and the 11th Circuit affirmed. 

The nation's highest court took up the case to decide if a “mistake” under the statute includes a judge’s errors of law. The justices said it does. 

‘Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1) allows a party to seek relief from a final judgment based on, among other things, a ‘mistake,’” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “The question presented is whether the term ‘mistake’ includes a judge’s error of law. We conclude, based on the text, structure, and history of Rule 60(b), that a judge’s errors of law are indeed ‘mistake[s]’ under Rule 60(b)(1).” 

Thomas said the court disagreed with both the government and Kemp’s interpretations of the statute. The government claims mistakes only include obvious legal errors, while Kemp claims the statute limits mistakes to non-legal errors. 

“In sum, nothing in the text, structure, or history of Rule 60(b) persuades us to narrowly interpret the otherwise broad term ‘mistake’ to exclude judicial errors of law,” Thomas wrote. “Because Kemp’s Rule 60(b) motion alleged such a legal error, we affirm the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment that the motion was cognizable under Rule 60(b)(1), subject to a 1-year limitations period, and, therefore, untimely.” 

Justice Neil Gorsuch, the sole dissent, said granting review in the case was “a questionable use of judicial resources” because the answer applies only under rare circumstances. He chastised the court for adopting a position neither party argued. 

“In an unexpected twist, the Court adopts a further position neither party saw fit to advance. Going forward, every judicial legal error — not just an inadvertent or obvious ‘mistake’ — is fodder for collateral attack under Rule 60(b)(1),” the Trump appointee wrote. “And what is the basis for all this? A mysterious 1946 amendment deleting the word ‘'his.'’”

Gorsuch said the question should have been addressed through Congress, not “a doubtful interpretive project focused on a pronoun dropped in 1946.” 

The Department of Justice and Andrew Adler, an attorney at the Federal Public Defender’s Office representing Kemp, declined to comment on the case.

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