Supreme Court a tough crowd for Biden admin attorney in dispute over technicalities of property rights claims

The Supreme Court held oral arguments a couple of weeks ago in a case involving a lawsuit between private property owners and the federal government that, on several occasions, left the attorney for the administration tongue-tied and stuttering.

At issue is a technicality involving the statute of limitations for a certain property rights law, and virtually all of the justices, including even the liberal ones, expressed skepticism and pointed questions against the government’s arguments, the Conservative Brief reported.

The statute of limitations on property rights disputes with the government

The case is known as Wilkins v. United States and the central question at issue is “Whether the Quiet Title Act’s statute of limitations is a jurisdictional requirement or a claim-processing rule.”

The Quiet Title Act deals with lawsuits against the government over property rights and includes a provision that appears to impose a 12-year limitation on when claims can be made by a property owner.

As SCOTUSblog explained in June when the case was first taken up and docketed by the Supreme Court, the justices have been asked to determine whether that 12-year statute of limitations “is jurisdictional — that is, it goes to the court’s power to hear the case and cannot be waived — or instead a ‘claims-processing rule,’ a procedural rule that can be waived.”

That question is central to the claims filed in 2018 by two Montana property owners against the federal government over a roadway easement across their land that had been opened up by the government over their objections to allow for public access to a national park.

The lawsuit had been dismissed by a district court as being too late beyond the statute of limitations since the government had initially opened that easement to public access in 2006, the Conservative Brief noted.

Tough questions over suggested adherence to prior precedents that have been overturned

Following the oral arguments on November 30, SCOTUSblog reported separately that it did not go particularly well for the government’s attorney, Assistant Solicitor General Ben Snyder — though the attorney for the property owners, Jeffrey McCoy, fared little better with the jurists.

Snyder attempted to argue that the Supreme Court should hold to the more strict “jurisdictional” standard that it had previously applied in similar cases involving the Quiet Title Act several decades ago.

This was despite the fact that the court had seemingly clarified that it favored the less strict “claims-processing” interpretation, except when the text of a statute is abundantly clear, in a unanimous decision just last year known as Boechler v. Commissioner.

Based on the transcript of the arguments, Snyder appeared to have little success in convincing any of the high court jurists to ignore their recent unanimous ruling and return to the old way of doing things.

In fact, even Justices Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor posed tough questions to Snyder that tripped him up and had him scrambling to find an appropriate response.

Possible unanimous decision next year against the government

Of course, before anyone gets too excited, the SCOTUSblog report made it clear that McCoy, the lawyer for the property owners, also faced some rather tough questions of his own from all of the justices on the high bench.

In the end, and while nothing is certain, the outlet noted that it seems likely that the Supreme Court will issue another unanimous decision in this case at some point early next year, and the federal government likely won’t be the victorious side.

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