"If rigorous rules like the one applied today are thought to be inequitable, Congress may authorize the courts" to adopt more lenient rules, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.
In dissent, Justice David H. Souter wrote: "It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way." He faulted the majority for "condoning this bait and switch."
It is the second time in a month that the court split along conservative-liberal lines over an issue of deadlines. In a 5-4 ruling that was seen as a setback for women's rights, the court overturned a pay-discrimination verdict in favor of the lone female supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant because she had not pointed to unfair pay decisions within the time limit of 180 days prior to the filing of her suit.
In the case decided Thursday, Kevin Bowles was convicted of murder in 1999 for taking part in the beating of another man, and his appeals were rejected by the Ohio courts. His initial appeal was rejected by a federal district judge.
His lawyer sought to reopen his appeal, and under a federal rule of civil procedure he had 14 days to file a notice. The judge granted his motion to reopen the appeal on Feb. 10, 2004, but inexplicably said his notice must be filed by Feb. 27.
Bowles' notice was filed on Feb. 26, the day before the judge's deadline. But this was 16 days after he had granted the motion, or two days beyond the legal deadline.
State prosecutors insisted Bowles' appeal should be thrown out because of the missed deadline. And they argued that the appeals court had no legal authority to hear his case.
The appeals court agreed, and the high court upheld that decision Thursday in Bowles vs. Russell.
"Time limits for filing a notice of appeal are jurisdictional in nature," Thomas said, and therefore cannot be waived by judges for reasons for fairness. "We hold that [Bowles'] untimely notice — even though filed in reliance upon a District Court's order — deprived the Court of Appeals of jurisdiction." He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito.
Souter called the court's handling of the issue "puzzling" and "incoherent."
"Congress put no jurisdictional tag on the time limit here," he said, and the court was wrong to add one.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined the dissent.