A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision sends a strong message – if you intend to appeal a decision, don’t wait around. If you miss the deadline, even a federal court won’t be able to fix the problem. In Bowles v. Russell, 2007 WL 1702870 (U.S. 2007), the Supreme Court held that federal district courts do not have the power to extend the deadline for filing a notice of appeal beyond the time period established in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If the deadline is not met, the right to appeal will be lost permanently because appellate jurisdiction may not be changed by the courts. In making its decision, the Supreme Court overruled two precedents allowing courts to extend the deadline for invoking appellate jurisdiction in “exceptional circumstances.”
Bowles arose out of a habeas proceeding, but the holding applies in all civil appellate cases. After being given a sentence of 15 years to life for murder by an Ohio jury, Bowles filed a habeas corpus petition in the federal district court. This application was denied. Under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1)(A) and 28 U. S. C. § 2107(a), Bowles had thirty days in which to file his notice of appeal but did not meet this deadline. Subsequently, Bowles filed a motion to reopen the period during which he could file his notice of appeal pursuant to under Rule 4(a)(6) and 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c). These provisions allow district courts to extend the filing period for 14 days from the day the district court grants the order to reopen when certain conditions are met. The district court granted Bowles’ motion to reopen the filing period but instead of extending the time period by 14 days, as Rule 4(a)(6) and § 2107(c) allow, the district court gave Bowles 17 days to file his notice of appeal. Bowles filed his notice on the sixteenth day of that time period, within the time allowed by the district court’s order but after the 14-day period allowed by Rule 4(a)(6) and § 2107(c). The Sixth Circuit ruled that Bowles appeal was untimely and the Supreme Court agreed.
In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court noted that filing a timely notice of appeal is “mandatory and jurisdictional.” If a notice of appeal has not been timely filed, there is no appellate jurisdiction over the case. The authority to extend the time for filing an appeal comes from 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c), which specifies only a 14-day extension of the time period. The Supreme Court made it clear that statutory time limits are jurisdictional. Only Congress has the power to determine the lower federal court’s subject matter jurisdiction, and appellate jurisdiction cannot be altered by court order. The Supreme Court stated that “because Congress decides whether federal courts can hear cases at all, it can also determine when, and under what conditions, federal courts can hear them.” As an example, the Supreme Court pointed to its own certiorari procedures, which recognize that the 90-day time limit for filing a petition is based on a statute. When a cert petition is not timely filed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the failure to do so is jurisdictional.
The Supreme Court applied the same reasoning in holding that the time limits for filing a notice of appeal must be strictly enforced and cannot be varied by court order. Bowles argued that in any event, the court should recognize an exception with respect to appellate jurisdiction in his case, given that he relied on a federal court order in filing his late notice of appeal. The Supreme Court held that the federal courts did not have the authority to create an equitable exception to the statutes and rules governing appellate jurisdiction. In doing so, the court overruled Truck Lines, Inc. v. Cherry Meat Packers, Inc., 371 U. S. 215 (1962), and Thompson v. INS, 375 U. S. 384 (1964), two earlier U.S. Supreme Court cases applying a “unique circumstances” doctrine allowing for equitable relief from a jurisdictional deadline. The court overruled both decisions “to the extent they purport to authorize an exception to a jurisdictional rule.” The Supreme Court recognized that the result in this case might be harsh but stated that Congress could change the rules governing appellate jurisdiction if it wished to. Writing for the four dissenters, Justice Souter rejected the notion that the notice of appeal deadline was mandatory and jurisdictional and asserted that courts could allow for equitable exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction deadline.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowles, even if a federal court issues an order extending the time in which to file a notice of appeal, businesses and individuals planning to appeal a federal district court decision should know they still have to meet the statutory deadline and cannot rely on the federal court’s order. Otherwise, there will be no appellate jurisdiction, and the right to appeal will be permanently lost.
Opinion text: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/06pdf/06-5306.pdf