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Justices at crossroads over precedent in land-access battle

The government says the challenge it faces from Montana property owners over road construction should be thrown out as untimely. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Members of the Supreme Court appeared stumped Wednesday on what ambivalent precedent means for a pair of Montana landowners fighting to revive their suit against the federal government.

“We clearly stated … that if we've really addressed the issue, decided the issue, then that controls,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “It has a stare decisis effect. But, if we've just kind of used the word without deciding the issue, then that doesn't have stare decisis effect.” 

After all, the Obama appointee noted, the court tends to “do a lot of gratuitous stuff.” 

Justice Neil Gorsuch weighed in as well about the court's wariness of having precedent read as carefully as laws. 

“We are trying to figure out what we held in a prior case versus what's extraneous dicta,” the Trump appointee said. “We've often cautioned parties against reading our opinions like statutes and giving talismanic effect to every word.” 

The roots of the case lie in an easement that the U.S. Forest Service obtained in 1962 for Robbins Gulch Road, a 60-foot drag that sits on land in rural Montana owned by Larry Steven Wilkins and Jane Stanton. After the Forest Service erected a sign on the road in 2006 with the words “public access through private lands,” Wilkins and Stanton say traffic increased, bringing in trespassers and theft. They claim people shot at their houses and began hunting on their land. 

After a failed attempt to get the Forest Service to address the problem in 2017, the landowners filed suit to determine the ownership of the easement.

The Quiet Title Act has a 12-year statute of limitations, however, and a federal judge dismissed Wilkins and Stanton's suit as untimely. The Ninth Circuit then affirmed, sending the case to the Supreme Court. As the landowners see it, the deadline should be seen as a claim-processing rule rather than a jurisdictional requirement. Quoting precedent from the 2011 case Henderson ex rel. Henderson v. Shinseki, they said such timeframes are meant "to promote the orderly progress of litigation," not deprive a court of authority to hear a case.

During arguments, however, Chief Justice John Roberts bristled at the reference to more-than-decade-old precedent. “Do we transport ourselves back in time and try to say whether that was true when the Court decided the case,” he asked Jeffrey McCoy, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation representing the landowners.

McCoy told the justices that Congress never explicitly held out the Quiet Title Act's statute of limitations as jurisdictional, whereas evidence points to Congress intending the opposite. 

“This Court has repeatedly held that when Congress wants to make a time bar jurisdictional, it must clearly state so,” McCoy said. “In passing the Quiet Title Act, Congress did not clearly state that the statute of limitations is jurisdictional. Instead, the text, context, structure, and history indicate that Congress intended the statute of limitations to be a non-jurisdictional affirmative defense.” 

The government warned the court that it would be imprudent to snub the statute of limitations. 

“Revisiting the time bar’s jurisdictional status would cause unnecessary disruption,” said Benjamin Synder, assistant to the solicitor general at the Department of Justice. “At a broad level, it would leave the lower courts confused about when they have to comply with this court’s applications of governing law.” 

The justices appeared divided.

“Twelve years is 12 years,” Roberts remarked. “You don’t get beyond that.” 

Justice Elena Kagan noted meanwhile that the government was seizing on prior opinions that had nothing to do with the court’s actual ruling in the case. 

Roberts reiterated these arguments concerning Congress’ mandate. 

“The people across the street are on clear notice that they’ve really got to spell it out if they want one of these time limits to be jurisdictional,” Roberts said. 

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