Justices Take Minister’s Side in Strip-Search Case

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The United States failed Wednesday to secure a Supreme Court dismissal of claims by a Tien Tao minister, the matriarch of the Tao Heritage.
     Kwai Fun Wong, the matriarch of the Tao Heritage and spiritual leader of the Wu-Wei Tien Tao Association, had brought the suit to challenge a strip search she endured at the hands of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
     The agency had arrested Wong, a citizen of the United Kingdom who has taken vows of vegetarianism and celibacy, in 1999 after she left the United States for 18 days to attend the funeral of her spiritual predecessor.
     Prior to her five-day arrest, Wong had lived in Oregon on a visitor visa. She claimed she was strip-searched twice, once in the presence of a male jailer, and denied vegetarian meals.
     Wong filed her first complaint in 2001, but U.S. District Judge Robert Jones ruled that the final remaining issue, a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act, was filed outside the statute of limitations and could not be tolled under 9th Circuit precedent.
     The en banc 9th Circuit later reversed, finding that the statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b) of the FTCA could be postponed because it was a procedural rule rather than a “jurisdictional rule” that involved a court’s power to hear a case.
     In the case at hand, the panel found that “Wong’s circumstances easily justify equitable tolling,” as her alleged untimeliness was clearly a lower court’s fault.
     “If anything, Wong took special care in exercising due diligence: Wong first sought leave to file her amended complaint ‘on or after November 20, 2001,’ which was, at the time that request was filed, the first day following exhaustion of her administrative remedies on which Wong would have been permitted to file her claim in the district court,” the lead opinion said.
     Two dissenting judges argued against tolling, saying “Congress clearly expressed its intent that 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b) would limit the jurisdiction of federal courts by providing that tort claims ‘shall be forever barred’ unless action is begun within the six-month period following denial of the administrative claim by the concerned agency, with no exceptions.”
     The Supreme Court took up Wong’s case last year along with another case that the 9th Circuit revived on the same basis, involving tort claims Marlene June filed against the Federal Highway Administration, blaming its approval of a median barrier for the death of her son, Andrew Booth.     
     A five-justice majority affirming on both counts Wednesday.
     “In each of the two cases we resolve here, the claimant missed one of those deadlines, but requested equitable tolling on the ground that she had a good reason for filing late,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
     Citing the 1990 decision Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, Kagan noted that the court’s “precedents make this a clear-cut case.”
     “Irwin requires an affirmative indication from Congress that it intends to preclude equitable tolling in a suit against the government,” the 18-page opinion states. “Congress can provide that signal by making a statute of limitations jurisdictional. But that requires its own plain statement; otherwise, we treat a time bar as a mere claims-processing rule. Congress has supplied no such statement here.”
     Justice Samuel Alito penned the dissent, which Chief Justice John Roberts joined along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
     “For over 130 years, we have understood these terms as jurisdictional,” he wrote.
     Alito added: “the court’s contrary conclusion is wrong at every step.”

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