The Supreme Court’s opinion in John R. Sand and Gravel marked one of their most phiosophical in quite some time. The Court was asked to decide whether or not a court of appeals can consider an argument sua sponte.

In district court, thee government had brought up statute of limitations concerns after John R Sand & Gravel filed suit. They later conceded that argument and won on the merits of the case. On appeal, neither side brought up the issue, although an amicus brief did discuss the issue.

The Court of Appeals felt obligated to address the timeliness issue and ruled in favor of the government on the issue, despite the governments prior waiver on the issue.

Some of the earliest cases addressing statutes of limitation would bind the Court to rule in favor of the Court of Appeals. Kendall v. US (1883) saw Justice Harlan write, “it [was] the duty of the court to raise the [timeliness] question whether it [was] done by plea or not.” The Court reached a similar end in Finn v. US (1887) and other cases over the next century. For nearly a century, statutes of limitation in suits against private entities could be voided by a waiver of by equitable tolling- cases against the government could not.

In 1990, the Court created a more general rule in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Court applied equitable tolling allowances against private entities to be applied similarly to the federal government.

Justice Breyer, in his majority opinion in John R, held that it is more important to apply well-established precedent than it is to simply apply the Court’s most recent, marginally applicable case. I couldn’t do his words justice by paraphrasing, so here are the final two paragraphs of his opinion in toto (but without citations):

Basic principles of stare decisis, however, require us to reject this argument. Any anomaly the old cases and Irwin together create is not critical; at most, it reflects a different judicial assumption about the comparative weight Congress would likely have attached to competing legitimate interests. Moreover, the earlier cases lead, at worst, to different interpretations of different, but similarly worded, statutes; they do not produce “unworkable” law. Further, stare decisis in respect to statutory interpretation has “special force,” for “Congress remains free to alter what we have done.” Additionally, Congress has long acquiesced in the interpretation we have given.

Finally, even if the Government cannot show detrimental reliance on our earlier cases, our reexamination of well-settled precedent could nevertheless prove harmful. Justice Brandeis once observed that “in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.” To overturn a decision settling one such matter simply because we might believe that decision is no longer “right” would inevitably reflect a willingness to reconsider others. And that willingness could itself threaten to substitute disruption, confusion, and uncertainty for necessary legal stability. We have not found here any factors that might overcome these considerations.

As many of you will know, conservatives love to bash judicial ‘liberals’ like Justice Breyer for ignoring precedent and spitting in the face of stare decisis. This will be a popular counterexample for years to come.

Justice Steven’s dissenting opinion is interesting for the distinction he makes. He contends that this court is not carving-out parts of a larger doctrine but clarifying and overruling previous judgements. He argues that this court should “[resolve] in favor of clarifying the law, rather than preserving an anachronism whose doctrinal underpinnings were discarded years ago.” Ultimately, with only Justice Ginsburg to support him, his idea to explicitly overrule the Soriano line of precedent falls flat.


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