(Bloomberg View) — Is it better to follow the strict letter of the law or to adjust it where appropriate to produce a more equitable result? This is one of the oldest questions in legal thought, one that can be traced back at least to Aristotle — and on Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, 5-4, on the side of equity, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the deciding vote.
Ordinarily, a decision like this one, involving the interpretation of the Federal Tort Claims Act would be of interest only to practitioners who are specialists in statutory interpretation. But this isn’t an ordinary spring. In June, the Supreme Court will hand down its most important statutory interpretation case in a generation, essentially deciding whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) will survive or fall. The interpretation question before the court in that high profile case, King vs. Burwell, bears a striking structural resemblance to the obscure one the court decided Wednesday. And, not for the first time, Kennedy is the justice whose intentions we can’t help trying to predict.
The technical issue before the justices in federal courts case, U.S. vs. Kwai Fun Wong, had to do with what happens when a plaintiff who alleges that he’s been injured by the government files suit after the statute of limitations has run its course. The law says, rather biblically, that a suit “shall be forever barred” if the plaintiff misses one of the required deadlines.
Sounds pretty clear, right? Well, yes — except what should be done if the reason the plaintiff couldn’t file was that she was blocked from doing so by a court that didn’t do its job right or by the government that injured her failing to provide information necessary for her to file?
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Under those circumstances, courts have the established authority to engage in what’s called “equitable tolling of the statute of limitations.” The “tolling” part means that the statute of limitations will be frozen at the moment when the plaintiff was blocked from filing, thus allowing the suit to go forward later.
The “equitable” part means that the court is exercising the form of justice known as “equity.” That’s the English translation of what Aristotle had in mind when he proposed that the strict letter of the law should be overridden when following it would produce an unjust result.
The Supreme Court had to decide whether the words “shall be forever barred” do or don’t permit equitable tolling. The majority decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, analyzed the issue by asking whether Congress had made a “clear statement” that equitable tolling shouldn’t apply to a suit brought under the FTCA.
According to Kagan, if Congress clearly stated that a court lacked the jurisdiction to proceed on a time-barred claim, then equitable tolling shouldn’t be allowed. But she concluded that Congress had made no such clear statement. It followed that equitable tolling is allowed, and that the law can be bent when there is good reason to do so.