Argument Preview: Bloate v. United States
Below, Akin Gump’s Scott Street previews Bloate v. United States, one of the three cases to be heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, October 6. Check the Bloate v. United States (08-728) SCOTUSwiki page for additional updates.
On Tuesday, October 6, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Bloate v. United States. In Bloate, the Court will consider whether a provision of the Speedy Trial Act that automatically excludes periods of delay resulting from "other proceedings concerning the defendant" governs time granted to a defendant to prepare a pretrial motion.
The Speedy Trial Act requires that a criminal defendant be tried within seventy days of the later of his (1) indictment or (2) first appearance in court. In calculating that 70-day period, the Act automatically excludes, among other things, "any period of delay resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant." The Act does not define these "other proceedings," but instead provides that they include "“ but are not limited to "“ "any pretrial motion, from the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing on, or other prompt disposition of, such motion." The statute also authorizes a court to exclude "[a]ny period of delay resulting from a continuance granted by any judge on his own motion or at the request of the defendant or his counsel or at the request of the attorney for the Government," as long as "the judge granted such continuance on the basis of his findings that the ends of justice served by taking such action outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial." However, the statute requires the court to explain its reasons for granting the continuance on the record.
In this case, petitioner Taylor James Bloate was arrested after a traffic stop led police to discover two bags of cocaine in his car, as well as additional drug paraphernalia, weapons, and cash in an apartment that belonged to his girlfriend (and in which, the evidence suggested, Bloate himself lived). Bloate was indicted for possession of a firearm and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute on August 24, 2006. On September 7, 2006, Bloate asked the district court to extend the deadline for preparing and filing pretrial motions to September 25. The court granted this request, but Bloate eventually changed his mind; on October 4, 2006, a magistrate judge granted him leave to waive his right to file any pretrial motions. Trial was delayed for several more months and eventually scheduled for late February 2007.
On February 19, 2007, Bloate moved to dismiss the indictment under the Speedy Trial Act. The district court denied the motion. The parties now agree that the district court properly excluded most of the time between Bloate's August 24, 2006 indictment and the February 2007 trial date. But they disagree about the 28-day delay "“ from September 7 to October 4 "“ that resulted from Bloate's request to extend the time for preparing pretrial motions. The district court automatically excluded that time as a period of delay resulting from "other proceedings concerning the defendant."
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit agreed and affirmed. Construing the Act's list of delay resulting from "other proceedings concerning the defendant" as illustrative, rather than exhaustive, it concluded that delay resulting from the preparation of pretrial motions was sufficiently related to such proceedings to warrant automatic exclusion. The Eighth Circuit's view is shared by seven other circuits, which have similarly concluded that courts must exclude pretrial motion preparation time as part of another proceeding concerning the defendant. By contrast, two circuits have concluded that pretrial motion preparation time cannot automatically be excluded because Congress, in listing some examples of other proceedings concerning the defendant, indicated only that "delay resulting from any pretrial motion, from the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing on, or other prompt disposition of, such motion" should be automatically excluded.
Bloate filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted on April 20, 2009.
Bloate's argument seems very simple. The speedy trial clock does not count periods of delay resulting from "other proceedings concerning the defendant." But because the statute specifically discusses "delay resulting from any pretrial motion, from the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing on, or other prompt disposition of, such motion," Congress intended not to automatically exclude any time spent working on the motion before it was filed. He supports this reading by using various canons of statutory interpretation. Perhaps most importantly, he contends that excluding pre-filing preparation time would render the starting point referred to in the Act's example meaningless, and thus render the entire example superfluous. He also points out that the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the Justice Department's attempt to add preparation time to the automatic exclusion example in the late 1970s. Finally, he argues that the specificity of the pretrial motion example, coupled with the comparative open-endedness of other such examples, reflects Congress's that preparation time not be automatically excluded from the speedy trial clock.
In Bloate's view, it would be more appropriate, and more consistent with the goals of the Speedy Trial Act, to only automatically exclude delay that relates to a pretrial motion after a pretrial motion is filed, while giving courts discretion to exclude preparation time under the provision that allows a court to exclude "[a]ny period of delay resulting from a continuance granted by any judge on his own motion or at the request of the defendant or his counsel or at the request of the attorney for the Government if the judge granted such continuance on the basis of his findings that the ends of justice served by taking such action outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial." In fact, Bloate posits, many courts already do precisely that, but mistakenly indicate that they are instead deciding the issue under the automatic exclusion.
The United States argues that the Speedy Trial Act automatically excludes "delays arising from proceedings aimed at advancing the defendant's case towards trial or other resolution, especially procedures of which the defendant might seek to take advantage in pursuing his defense," and therefore includes proceedings that are analogous or ancillary to the proceedings that the statute specifically mentions. In this case, because time spent preparing a pretrial motion is both analogous and ancillary to pretrial motion proceedings themselves, it should be automatically excluded under the statute. Moreover, automatically excluding such time furthers the goal of the Speedy Trial Act, because trial judges would not grant defendants much time to prepare these motions if the time were not automatically excluded and, thus, the parties would have to "rush to trial" to satisfy the Speedy Trial clock.
The government also disputes Bloate's interpretation of the scope of the examples contained in the Speedy Trial Act's list of automatic exclusions and challenges his reading of the statute's legislative history. For example, the Act expressly provides that its automatic exclusions "include[e] but [are] not limited to" the enumerated situations. Furthermore, the Solicitor General contends that Congress added the specific pretrial motion language to the statute in 1979 to override judicial decisions that had limited excluded delay to time the parties spent in judicial proceedings related to pretrial motions, rather than the entire period of delay that resulted once the defendant filed a pretrial motion. And the government argues that, while Congress did not want to automatically exclude all time that courts routinely allot for motion preparation, it "did not address whether to exclude the narrower subset of additional preparation time granted at a defendant's specific request," thus limiting the relevance of the Senate Judiciary Committee's action.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed the only amicus brief in this case. It supports Bloate, arguing that the United States's attempt to expand the automatic exclusions violates the will of Congress and impedes the purpose of the Speedy Trial Act. Interestingly, in this sense, it challenges the government's argument that the Court must exclude motion preparation time to ensure that defendants receive a fair and speedy trial. First, the NACDL rejects the generalization that defendants benefit from a delay in preparing pretrial motions, even if they request the extra preparation time. More important, according to the NACDL, Congress decided that, "as concerns motions practice, the benefits of speedy trials are subordinate to the administrative needs of the trial judge, not the litigants."
Things to Watch for During Oral Argument
Both parties in this case concede that the "other proceedings" provision of the Speedy Trial Act is ambiguous because it specifically lists examples of delay that result from other proceedings concerning the defendant but also states that those examples are not exhaustive. Furthermore, the delay at issue here is not mentioned in the "other proceedings" provision, even though Congress gave an example of delay related to pretrial motions that would be automatically excluded in that sub-section.
Thus, you would think that Bloate should turn on the method of statutory interpretation the Court uses to resolve the ambiguity. But that might not resolve things. For example, the Court could say "expressio unius est exclusio alterius""”the expression of one thing (courts must exclude time from the filing of a pretrial motion) implies the exclusion of other things (courts cannot automatically exclude pretrial motion preparation time). But Congress also said that the enumerated examples are not exhaustive. So perhaps "expressio unius" will not work.
In that case, the Court could either try to figure out what Congress actually meant when it said that courts must automatically exclude delay resulting from "other proceedings concerning the defendant," as Bloate would like it to do, or it could focus on whether automatically excluding these periods of delay serves the purpose of the Speedy Trial Act, which the United States would prefer. The latter approach might appeal to the justices, but the Court would have to hurdle two obstacles to use it. First, it would have to explain why such an approach does not effectively read the discretionary exclusion provision out of the Speedy Trial Act, because that sub-section does exactly what the government wants the Court to do in automatically excluding pretrial motion preparation time. Second, it would have to distinguish the Senate Judiciary Committee's decision to exclude similar language when it drafted the "other proceedings" examples in 1979. Neither obstacle is easy to overcome, and the government does not offer many convincing reasons for hurdling them in its brief. Therefore, I will be watching to see if the Court presses the Solicitor General for any better reasons, or if it ignores the hurdles altogether.