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Grant Write-Up: Bloate v. US

Today the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Bloate v. United States, No. 08-728, to address a question that has divided the courts of appeals regarding the operation of the Speedy Trial Act.

1. The Speedy Trial Act requires that a defendant be brought to trial within 70 days of his indictment or arraignment, whichever comes later. The statute, however, provides that certain periods of time do not count toward the 70 days. One such exception is the period of delay “resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant, including but not limited to . . . delay resulting from any pretrial motion.” 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1)(F). The excluded time runs from “the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing upon, or other prompt disposition of, such motion.” Id. § 3161(h)(1)(D).

In this case, petitioner Taylor James Bloate was arraigned on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and with possessing cocaine base with intent to distribute. After the district court set an initial deadline for pretrial motions, Bloate’s court-appointed public defender asked for a 13 day extension to file pretrial motions, which the court granted. Bloate eventually waived his right to file any pretrial motions. This process took 28 days in total, from the arraignment to the date the court allowed Bloate to waive the right to file pretrial motions.

Bloate subsequently moved to dismiss the indictment because of excessive delay under the Speedy Trial Act. He argued that given subsequent delays, the 28 day pretrial motion preparation period put the Government over the 70-day speedy trial limit unless the 28 days fell within one of the statutory exemptions. Bloate further argued that because the statute expressly excludes only the time from the filing of a pretrial motion to the resolution of the motion, the time spent preparing the motion is not excluded. The district court disagreed, holding that the statute also excludes, more generally, other time spent in “other proceedings concerning the defendant,” which it understood to include the motion preparation time.

The trial went forward and Bloate was convicted. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the district court that the Act’s specific mention of the time between the filing of and decision upon a pretrial motion was simply “illustrative” and that the time allowed for pretrial motions should also be excluded under the broad phrase “proceedings concerning the defendant.”

2. Bloate, represented by the University of Virginia Law School Supreme Court Clinic and others, filed a petition for certiorari. The petition asserted that there is a deep split among the courts of appeals over whether the specific exclusion of the time spent responding to and deciding pretrial motions implies that the time spent preparing them is not excluded. In particular, the Eighth Circuit and seven others hold that the time does not count, while the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have held that it does.

In response, the United States acknowledged the circuit split, but asserted that the difference among the circuits rarely has any practical effect. The Government noted that there is a residual exception that allows the court to exclude time from counting toward the 70 days when the “ends of justice” so requires. Moreover, the Government argued that for various reasons, even if the time for preparation of pretrial motions counted, Bloate’s trial still fell within the 70 days allowed by the Speedy Trial Act, an assertion Bloate disputed in his reply brief.

3. On the merits, the parties agree that the Speedy Trial Act excludes “delay resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant,” and that the statute does not specifically define that term. Instead, the statute gives a list of time periods that fall within that rule, a list that everyone acknowledges is not exhaustive. The statutory interpretation question, then, is how broadly the general phrase should be read, and what significance the Court should give to the fact that one of the examples specifically addresses pretrial motions but expressly excludes only the time between the filing and decision on the motion, and does not expressly exclude time spent preparing the motion.

It would be quite odd, Bloate argues, for Congress to expressly exclude only a portion of the time relating to pretrial motions, yet to intend that courts could broaden that time period under the general “proceedings concerning the defendant” heading. Reading that general phrase to encompass time spent in pretrial preparations on motions, petitioner argues, would render virtually all time spent in pretrial preparations excluded from the Speedy Trial Act calculation, rendering the limitation largely meaningless. Petitioner further argues that the legislative and drafting history of the provision supports his view.

The Government’s brief in opposition spends less time addressing the merits of the claim and, as a result, provides less insight into what the Solicitor General is likely to argue on the merits. The Government’s brief does, however, point out that motion preparation time is not listed among the specific examples of time that must be included in the Speedy Trial calculation. Moreover, as a literal matter, the fact that the statute specifically excludes time spent responding to and deciding a pretrial motion does not mean that the preparatory time cannot also be excluded; after all, the list of specifically excluded time is prefaced by the phrase “including but not limited to,” and the general phrase “proceeding concerning the defendant” is very broad. In addition, accepting petitioner’s construction, the Government suggests, “would lead to the odd result that, while time granted to prepare a response to a pretrial motion is excludable . . . time granted to prepare the motion itself would not be excludable.”

The case will be briefed over the next several months and scheduled for argument in the Fall (in all likelihood in the November sitting).