- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Supreme Court yesterday imposed a six-year deadline for suing the federal government in property disputes.

The justices ruled 7-2 that a company waited too long to complain in court that the government took the firm’s property.

The decision came in a suit by the John R. Sand & Gravel Co. of Lapeer County, Mich., which sought compensation for the loss of some of the land that it had leased from the property owners.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said a federal appeals court was correct in raising the deadline question without being asked to do so and in ruling that the company had missed the deadline.

In some instances such as lawsuits against the government, the Supreme Court “has often read the time limits … as more absolute,” Justice Breyer wrote.

Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, saying the majority’s decision “has a hollow ring” because the court had overturned a precedent that it relied on for yesterday’s decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Stevens in dissent.

In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency began blocking access to portions of the property because the agency was overseeing the cleanup of a landfill under the federal Superfund law.

The owners of the 158-acre site in Metamora, Mich., had used part of the property for a landfill for tens of thousands of drums of toxic industrial waste.

The dispute is among several recent cases regarding whether filing deadlines under various laws prohibit courts from hearing a case or merely lay down rules on how and when to file a claim.

At issue in the current case is the power of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims under the Tucker Act. The act allows lawsuits against the government for claims involving federal contracts and the taking of private property without fair compensation.

In the suit involving John R. Sand & Gravel Co., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said it had no jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit because of the six-year deadline.

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