Today, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Wilkins v. United States, a highly technical procedural case that may turn out to be a significant victory for property owners, particularly those in Western states where the federal government owns large amounts of land. The ruling is a 6-3 decision featuring an unusual coalition of justices in the majority: the three liberals joined conservatives Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett, and Brett Kavanaugh. Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
The plaintiffs, Wil Wilkins and Jane Stanton, own homes near the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. The National Park Service owns a longstanding easement over the land which allows it to grant access to private parties engaged in logging on the National Forest. In 2006, the Forest Service put up a sign stating that the road through the plaintiffs’ land is open to general “public access.” This greatly increased traffic through the area, and disturbed Wilkins and Stanton. They filed an action against the federal government under the Quiet Title Act, which authorizes landowners to make claims protecting their property rights against federal intrusion. But the government claims they failed to do so within the 12 year statute of limitations under the Act.
The lower court ruling concluded that the time limit is an absolute “jurisdictional” rule, and therefore isn’t subject to constraints or limitations. Today, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, and instead concluded that the time-bar is a just a “ a nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule,” which the plaintiffs might be able to get around (possibly on the ground that the government failed to properly raise the issue) or prove they didn’t really violate.
Here’s a key excerpt from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s majority opinion:
“For purposes of efficiency and fairness, our legal system is replete with rules” like forfeiture, which require parties to raise arguments themselves and to do so at certain times…. Jurisdictional bars, however, “may be raised at any time” and courts have a duty to consider them sua sponte.… When such eleventh-hour jurisdictional objections prevail post-trial or on appeal, “many months of work on the part of the attorneys and the court may be wasted…” Similarly, doctrines like waiver and estoppel ensure efficiency and fairness by precluding parties from raising arguments they had previously disavowed.
Because these doctrines do not apply to jurisdictional objections, parties can disclaim such an objection, only to resurrect it when things go poorly for them on the merits.…
Given this risk of disruption and waste that accompanies the jurisdictional label, courts will not lightly apply it to procedures Congress enacted to keep things running smoothly and efficiently…..
Under this clear statement rule, the analysis of §2409a(g) is straightforward.“[I]n applying th[e] clear statement rule, we have made plain that most time bars are nonjurisdictional….” Nothing about §2409a(g)’s text or context gives reason to depart from this beaten path. Section 2409a(g) states that an action “shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued.” This “text speaks only to a claim’s timeliness,” and its “mundane statute-of-limitations language say[s] only what every time bar, by definition, must: that after a certain time a claim is barred…” Further, “[t]his Court has often explained that Congress’s separation of a filing deadline from a jurisdictional grant indicates that the time bar is not jurisdictional.”
In his dissent, Justice Thomas applies a presumption directly opposite to the one the majority relies on. Because federal sovereign immunity is at stake, he argues there should be a presumption in favor interpreting the time-bar as jurisdictional, because otherwise federal sovereign immunity would be waived:
The doctrine of sovereign immunity bars suits against the United States. But, in the Quiet Title Act of 1972, Congress waived this immunity and consented to suits against the United States in order to determine the status of disputed property. 28 U. S. C. §2409a. Congress conditioned this consent on, among other things, a 12-year statute of limitations: “Any civil action under this section, except for an action brought by a State, shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued.” §2409a(g). This Court has long construed such conditions on waivers of sovereign immunity as jurisdictional. And, it has acknowledged the jurisdictional nature of the Quiet Title Act’s statute of limitations in several precedents. In holding that §2409a(g) is not jurisdictional, the majority commits two critical errors. First, it applies the same interpretive approach to a condition on a waiver of sovereign immunity that it would apply to any run-of-the-mill procedural rule. Second, by reading the Court’s prior Quiet Title Act precedents in this way, the Court disregards their express recognition of the jurisdictional character of the Act’s time bar.
Both majority and dissent makes some good points. Because of the technical nature of many of them, this is one of those situations where you have to read the opinions in full to really understand the issues.
Ultimately, where you come down on this may depend in large part on how much priority should be assigned to preserving sovereign immunity versus protecting property owners’ rights. I am highly skeptical that sovereign immunity is a legitimate constitutional principle at all. By contrast, I think it is extremely important for courts to enforce constitutional property rights on par with other constitutional rights.
If the federal government illegally appropriates private property, it perpetrates an uncompensated taking in in violation of the Fifth Amendment (which requires “just compensation” for government seizure of private property rights). The Quiet Title Act is a tool for preventing such violations of constitutional rights. If we are going to have judicially created presumptions respecting its application, courts should pick ones that make it easier to vindicate constitutional rights over ones that provide extra protection for the dubious principle of sovereign immunity. But I can certainly understand why those who assign greater value to sovereign immunity or lesser value to property rights might reach a different conclusion.
Despite its hypertechnical nature, Wilkins may turn out be an important precedent. In Montana and other western states, the federal government owns many millions of acres of land that abut or cut through private property. Various federal agencies often do things that impinge on landowners’ rights or authorize various private parties to do so. The Quiet Title Act is an important tool for combating such intrusions on private land, one that may be of use to large numbers of people. And there may be a wide range of cases where there are statute of limitations issues that come up in these situations (e.g.—when land changes hands, or when it is unclear exactly when the intrusion started).
The unusual alignment of justices in this case is worth noting. The three liberal justices are not generally known for their solicitude for property rights. Yet they voted for the property owner in this case, with Justice Sotomayor writing the majority opinion. Justice Thomas, author of the dissenting opinion, is sometimes considered the most property-protective justice. Alito and Roberts (who joined the dissent) also have generally pro-property rights records.
It’s hard to say for sure. But I suspect that attitudes towards sovereign immunity may have trumped attitudes towards property rights for many of the justices here. While the liberal justices may not be big champions of property rights, they are also generally more skeptical of sovereign immunity than conservatives. By contrast, Justice Thomas is a particularly forceful advocate of broad sovereign immunity. The three conservative justices in the majority may be a bit less committed to immunity than he is.
Obviously this is just conjecture. There may be other explanations for the breakdown of votes here.
The Supreme Court’s decision is not the end of this litigation. The case has been remanded to the lower courts, which will now have to reconsider the statute of limitations issue, and (if the plaintiffs win on that) determine who should prevail on the merits.
NOTE: The plaintiffs in this case were represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is also my wife’s employer, though she herself did not work on Wilkins. PLF has more material about the case here.