A federal law limiting property rights suits against the government doesn’t bar Montana landowners from trying to nix a right-of-way, the US Supreme Court ruled.
In a 6-3 decision on Tuesday, the court said the Quiet Title Act’s 12-year time bar against suits challenging federal property rights is a non-jurisdictional claims processing rule that allows courts to consider such cases. The justices rejected a government argument that the time limit meant the case should be dismissed.
The opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that cut across ideological lines is the latest case seeking to distinguish “jurisdictional” rules, which deprive courts of authority to hear certain disputes, from the claims processing standards, which carry more flexibility.
Sotomayor said the court will only treat a procedural requirement as jurisdictional if Congress clearly states that it is.
“This principle of construction is not a burden courts impose on Congress,” she said. “To the contrary, this principle seeks to avoid judicial interpretations that undermine Congress’ judgment.”
The Supreme Court has hesitated to categorize rules as jurisdictional without crystal clear language saying so.
Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton own property on a rural road in Montana that the federal government has held an easement on since 1962, and which it says allows for public access.
Wilkins and Stanton sued in 2018 challenging the government’s property rights. They said the easement didn’t allow the general public to use the road.
The district court agreed with the government that the provision was jurisdictional, barring the court from hearing the dispute. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Thomas said the court disregarded prior opinions that expressly recognized the jurisdictional limits under the law in question, the Quiet Title Act.
Sotomayor was joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The case is Wilkins v. United States, U.S., No. 21-1164.
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