Frew v. Hawkins (02-628) and Kontrick v. Ryan (02-819)

January 14, 2004 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!

Two more opinions today, although neither one is a blockbuster. So, let's just get to work.

First, in Frew v. Hawkins (02-628), the Court held that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar enforcement of a federal consent decree entered into by state officials. (Every Term, there are a few cases that just seem obvious to me. This is one of them; I just can't imagine the Court coming out the other way.) The facts are simple: Texas state officials settled a class action lawsuit challenging the state's Medicaid program by entering into a detailed consent decree. Two years later, the plaintiffs moved to enforce the decree, claiming that Texas was not fulfilling its obligations. Texas responded by arguing that sovereign immunity prevented enforcement of the decree, and the Fifth Circuit agreed. Today, a unanimous Court (opinion by Kennedy) reversed. The plaintiffs argued that the state had waived its immunity in the course of the litigation, but the Court did not reach that issue. Instead, the Court held that enforcement is permitted under the principles of Ex parte Young . Even if the decree goes beyond the requirements of the statute, it is at base an order designed to implement a federal statute and thus it is enforceable. That's about it on the analysis. Kennedy closes the opinion with two pages of guidance directing district courts to consider state sovereignty interests when entering consent decrees and to return control of state obligations to state officials as soon as possible.

In another unanimous opinion, Kontrick v. Ryan (02-819), the Court held that the time limits for objecting to a debtor's discharge in bankruptcy are claim processing rules and that any failure to comply with those rules cannot be raised after litigation of the merits of the case. In this case, a creditor filed an untimely objection to Kontrick's bankruptcy petition but Kontrick did not object to the timeliness of the objection. After Kontrick lost on the merits, he moved for reconsideration arguing that the time limits for filing objections are "jurisdictional" and thus can be raised at any time in the proceedings. The lower courts rejected this argument, and the Supreme Court (opinion by Ginsburg) agreed. The opening part of the opinion notes that there is no real question in this case about the "jurisdiction" -- in the sense of subject matter jurisdiction -- of the bankruptcy court. Courts sometimes use the word "jurisdiction" loosely, but here the term is inapplicable. The time limits at issue are in no way related to the power of the court; they are merely claim processing rules. Nonetheless, Kontrick argued that the time limits were like limits on subject matter jurisdiction in that a failure to comply with those limits can be raised at any time in the litigation. Ginsburg dispatched with this argument quickly. Time bars generally must be raised in responsive pleadings, and in any event cannot be raised to defeat a claim after the party has litigated and lost the case on the merits.

One more point from the order list last Friday: a colleague at Wiggin and Dana filed a brief in support of the cert petition in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (the terrorism case granted last Friday) on behalf of Former American Prisoners of War and Experts on the Law of War. Congratulations on the cert grant, Jonathan!

That's all for now. The Court will likely issue another order list on Friday, and then opinions again next week. Until then, thanks for reading!


From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana.
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