Strictly adhere to federal appeal deadlines, even if a federal judge indicates that it is not necessary to do so. A habeas corpus petitioner learned that lesson the hard way in a recent Supreme Court decision.

In Bowles v. Russell, 127 S.Ct. 2360 (June 14, 2007), a five-justice majority of the Supreme Court held that an untimely notice of appeal deprived the Court of Appeals of jurisdiction – even though it had been filed in reliance upon a district court order. The majority ruled that statutory appeal filing deadlines are mandatory and jurisdictional, not merely claims-processing rules. In the process, the Court overruled the “unique circumstances” doctrine, which had permitted equitable exceptions to appeal filing deadlines.

An Ohio jury had convicted Bowles of murder. After appeals of his conviction failed, he filed a federal habeas corpus petition. On September 9, 2003, the district court denied Bowles habeas relief. After entry of final judgment on the habeas petition, Bowles failed to file a notice of appeal within the 30-day period provided by FRAP 4(a)(1)(A) and 28 U.S.C. § 2107(a). (Although they typically arise from criminal cases, habeas petitions themselves are civil cases and are thus governed by the 30-day filing deadline for civil appeals, rather than the 10- day deadline applicable to appeals by criminal defendants. See FRAP 4(b)(1)(A).) On December 12, 2003, Bowles moved to reopen the period during which he could file his notice of appeal pursuant to FRAP 4(a)(6), which allows district courts to extend the filing period for 14 days from the day the district court grants the order to reopen, provided certain conditions are met. See also 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c). On February 10, 2004, the district court granted Bowles’ motion, but the district court’s order, rather than stating that the time period was extended by 14 days, as FRAP 4(a)(6) and 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c) permit, inexplicably stated that Bowles had 17 days – until February 27 – to file his notice of appeal. Bowles filed his notice on February 26, within the 17 days allowed by the district court’s order, but after the 14-day period allowed by FRAP 4(a)(6) and 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c).

The Supreme Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. In an opinion delivered by Justice Thomas, the Court stated that it “has long held that the taking of an appeal within the prescribed time is mandatory and jurisdictional” and that more recent decisions that have drawn a distinction between “claims-processing rules,” which may create filing deadlines but do not affect the court’s jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter, and jurisdictional rules have not called into question the Court’s “longstanding treatment of statutory time limits for taking an appeal as jurisdictional.” The majority found that jurisdictional treatment of statutory time limits makes good sense, stating that “the notion of subject matter jurisdiction obviously extends to classes of cases falling within a court’s adjudicatory authority, but it is no less jurisdictional when Congress forbids federal courts from adjudicating an otherwise legitimate class of cases after a certain period has elapsed from final judgment.” Because the limit on the reopened period for filing a notice of appeal is set forth in a statute, an appeal taken beyond that period, such as Bowles’ appeal, must be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.

Bowles argued that the Court should have excused his untimely filing under the “unique circumstances” doctrine because the appeal was filed in reliance on the district court’s order stating that Bowles had until February 27 to file his notice of appeal. The “unique circumstances” doctrine has its roots in Harris Truck Lines, Inc. v. Cherry Meat Packers, Inc., 371 U.S. 215 (1962), in which, as in Bowles’ case, a district court error misled a party into believing that it had more time to file a notice of appeal than the relevant statute actually provided. The Court excused the late filing in that instance. In Bowles, however, the Court ruled that it had no authority to create equitable exceptions to jurisdictional requirements. Harris Truck Lines was overruled to the extent that it purported to authorize a “unique circumstances” doctrine.

Bowles is a striking illustration of the need to adhere strictly to appeal filing deadlines, which neither the trial court nor the parties may alter.