In a ruling that will likely change how petitioners in federal habeas corpus cases challenge “mistakes” in their cases, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held on June 13, 2022, that all mistakes of law in a federal habeas case include judicial mistakes, which fall under a strict one-year time limit.
When Dexter Kemp filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. sec 2255 to vacate his federal sentence, the district court dismissed it as too late. Kemp didn`t appeal but, two years later, filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) to reopen his sec 2255 motion. He claimed that his motion was indeed filed on time and the judge erred in concluding otherwise.
Kemp was right but, the court of appeals said, his Rule 60(b) motion was also filed too late and was properly denied by the district court. Kemp then petitioned the Supreme Court which agreed to hear his appeal to correct a longstanding disagreement whether a `mistake` in Rule 60(b)(1) includes a judge`s errors of law.”
Seeking Relief with a Rule 60(b) Motion
A party in a federal habeas case may request to “reopen” the case for a number of reasons under Rule 60(b). Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005). Kemp filed a motion under Rule 60(b)(6), which states:
On motion and on just terms, the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons … (6) any other reason that justifies relief.
This catch-all provision typically applies when the claim cannot meet the criteria under Rule 60(b)(1)-(5), and even then SCOTUS has said Rule 60(b)(6) is for only “extraordinary circumstances.” Ignoring the label Kemp put on his motion, the district court considered it filed under Rule 60(b)(1), not Rule 60(b)(6), and held that a judge`s error in a federal habeas case, a civil proceeding, actually fell under Rule 60(b)(1). That provision relieves a party of a final judgment in a civil case if there was “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.”
What is a “Mistake” Under Rule 60(b)?
SCOTUS looked to the dictionary definition of the word “mistake” when Rule 60(b)(1) was created in 1938. It found that a mistake applied to any “misconception, misunderstanding, or fault in opinion or judgment.” Looking to legal texts of the time, the Court found that a legal mistake included “errors of law or fact.” The Court concluded that, “regardless whether `mistake` in Rule 60(b)(1) carries its ordinary meaning or legal meaning, it includes a judge`s mistakes of law.”
However, when Rule 60(b)(1) was created it specifically referred to a party`s mistake (And not a judge`s) because it included the word “his,” referring to the movant. In 1946, the word “his” was deleted. “Thus, as currently written, `mistake` in Rule 60(b)(1) includes legal errors made by judges,” the Court said.
The Court rejected both the government`s and Kemp`s versions of what “mistake” meant under the current Rule 60(b)(1). The government argued that a mistake under this provision included legal errors, but only “obvious” ones. This is the position that most courts of appeals had taken, SCOTUS acknowledged, but doubted whether a lower court could determine when a mistake was made that was “sufficiently obvious” to meet this standard.
Kemp, on the other hand, argued that Rule 60(b)(1) encompassed only non-judicial mistakes — those made by the parties, not judges. He said that the other types of error noted in Rule 60(b)(1), which include inadvertence, surprise, and excusable neglect, were non-judicial errors and so a mistake should be deemed a non-judicial mistake under this provision. But the Court disagreed. “Because the words surrounding `mistake` in Rule 60(b)(1) do not connote exclusively non-legal or non-judicial errors, they do not favor Kemp`s narrower reading,” the Court said.
SCOTUS therefore found that the current reading of Rule 60(b)(1) included “mistakes” by judges, and affirmed the dismissal of Kemp`s motion as untimely-filed. See: Kemp v. United States, 596 U.S. ___ (2022).