June 13, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Kemp v. United States

On June 13, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kemp v. United States, No. 21-5726, holding that the term “mistake” in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1) includes a judge’s errors of law, and therefore Petitioner Dexter Kemp’s motion to reopen a final judgment more than one year after the judgment became final was untimely.

Kemp and seven co-defendants were convicted of various drug and gun crimes. After the Eleventh Circuit affirmed their convictions and sentences in a consolidated appeal, Petitioner moved the district court to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The district court mistakenly concluded that Kemp’s motion was untimely and denied the motion. Several years later, Kemp sought to reopen his Section 2255 proceedings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), which allows a court to reopen a final judgment under certain circumstances.

Rule 60(c)(1) governs the timing of Rule 60(b) motions. It provides that motions brought under Rule 60(b)(1) for “mistake” must be brought within one year after the entry of the judgment. Motions brought under the catchall provision of Rule 60(b)(6), however, for “any other reason that justifies relief,” may be brought “within a reasonable time,” which sometimes may extend beyond one year.

Kemp argued that his motion, based on the court’s legal error, was governed by the catchall provision Rule 60(b)(6). The district court disagreed and held that it was governed by Rule 60(b)(1). The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, and so did the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that as a matter of text, structure, and history, a judge’s errors of law are encompassed by the term “mistake” under Rule 60(b)(1). The Court further concluded that a “mistake” is not limited to “obvious” legal errors, as argued by the Government, or to non-judicial, non-legal errors, as argued by Kemp. Although a prior version of the rule had excluded judicial error, the current amendments removed that limitation. Accordingly, a motion to reopen a judgment based on an alleged legal error made by the judge falls within Rule 60(b)(1) and is subject to the one-year limitation of Rule 60(c)(1). Kemp’s motion to reopen the judgment was therefore untimely.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion. Justice Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion.

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