Kemp v. U.S.: Rule 60(b)(1) allows relief for error-of-law mistake
The term “mistake” in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 60(b)(1) includes a judge’s error of law, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 13 in Kemp v. United States.
A party may seek relief from a final judgment based on such a “mistake,” but must do so no later than one year after entry of the order under review, the Court ruled.
Dexter Kemp was convicted of various drug and gun crimes in 2011. He appealed and lost.
In 2015, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2255.
The District Court dismissed Kemp’s motion as untimely. He did not appeal.
Two years later, in 2018, Kemp attempted to reopen his Section 2255 proceedings under Rule 60(b), which authorizes a court to reopen a final judgment under certain listed circumstances.
Kemp argued the District Court had mistakenly calculated the time limit for his habeas corpus petition.
Kemp invoked Rule 60(b)(6). But Rule 60(b)(1) provides that a court may reopen a judgment for “mistake” so long as the motion is filed “within a reasonable time,” and, at most, one year after entry of the order under review.
The District Court rejected Kemp’s argument that its judgment was mistaken, and alternatively held that the 60(b) motion itself was untimely.
The 11th Circuit agreed with Kemp that the District Court had been mistaken about the timeliness of his motion, but nevertheless held that his 60(b) motion came too late.
The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a circuit split whether “mistake” in Rule 60(b)(1) includes a judge’s errors of law.
The Court, in an 8-1 opinion, held that “mistake” in Rule 60(b)(1) includes a judge’s error of law.
This result comes from the “text, structure, and history” of the Rule, the Court said.
“The ordinary meaning of the term ‘mistake’ in Rule 60(b)(1) includes a judge’s legal errors,” the Court said.
The Court rejected arguments that the term “mistake” was limited only to “factual errors” or “obvious” legal errors.
“Had the drafters of Rule 60(b)(1) intended a narrower meaning, they easily could have drafted language to that effect,” the Court said.
Kemp’s 60(b) motion properly alleged such a “mistake,” the Court said.
However, Rule 60(b)(1) imposed a 1-year limitations period on such a motion. Thus, Kemp’s motion was untimely, the Court concluded.
Justice Gorsuch dissented, and said the Court should not have granted cert. on this question. The question should have been resolved by amending Rule 60(b), after study by judges and practitioners, he said.
The rule-making process could better balance the need for finality verses error correction, he said.
“Going forward, every judicial legal error – not just an inadvertent or obvious ‘mistake’ – is fodder for collateral attack under Rule 60(b)(1),” he said.