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A split on the meaning of the Speedy Trial Act

Below, Scott Street of Akin Gump recaps the opinion handed down yesterday in Bloate v. United States.  (In October, we posted Scott’s preview and recap of oral arguments in the case on this blog).  Check the Bloate v. United States (08-728) SCOTUSwiki page for additional information.

If Congress could shift its attention away from health care reform for a few minutes, it would learn a valuable lesson from yesterday’s seven-to-two decision in Bloate v. United States: write more clearly when writing federal law!

In Bloate, the Court held only that a delay which results from time spent preparing pretrial motions cannot be automatically excluded under the Speedy Trial Act, which requires that a criminal defendant be brought to trial within seventy days of being arraigned or indicted, whichever occurs later.  Rejecting the interpretations of eight federal courts of appeals, the Court held that such time can instead only be excluded from the speedy trial clock if the district court finds, on the record, that granting the extra time serves the ends of justice.

It would be easy to think of Bloate as a simple case of statutory interpretation.  But several aspects of the decision should send a message to Congress when it writes these federal laws.

Everybody involved in Bloate agrees that criminal defendants should not be allowed to delay their proceedings by requesting an extension of time—here, an extension of time to prepare and file pretrial motions–and then take advantage of that delay by arguing that the delay prejudiced their right to a speedy trial.  Unfortunately, Congress did such a poor job of drafting the Speedy Trial Act that it took six months for the Court to decide what section of the Act excludes that delay from the speedy trial clock.  And even then, the Court’s decision prompted a strong dissent from the fairly unusual alliance of Justices Alito and Breyer.

Indeed, both the majority and the dissenting opinions in Bloate are reasonable and persuasive.  As Justice Thomas notes for the majority, although the Act automatically excludes delay resulting from “other proceedings concerning the defendant,” it excludes delay resulting from other “continuances” only if the district court finds, on the record, that the delay serves the ends of justice.  The majority refused to read the automatic exclusions broadly–notwithstanding that Congress, in providing examples of such proceedings, said that the list was illustrative and non-exhaustive–because it felt that doing so would render the “ends of justice” provision meaningless, contrary to canons of statutory interpretation.

The dissent disputes some aspects of the majority’s statutory interpretation, such as the assertion that delay in preparing a pretrial motion constitutes delay “resulting from any pretrial motion”–a meaningful distinction in a case like this one, in which the district court granted extensions of time to file a pretrial motion but no motions were ever filed. More importantly, the dissent deems it pointless to require district judges to make an “ends of justice” finding on the record, because they will always exclude delay resulting from a defendant’s request from the speedy trial clock.

That ends-oriented analysis did not sit well with the majority, even though the justices have been conscious of the swelling federal docket and have demonstrated, in cases like Pearson v. Callahan, a desire to ease that burden. The statute simply proved too vague for the majority to justify that result.

So, in the end, even if the Court could not agree on how Congress expressed its intent, Congress always has the power to rewrite the Speedy Trial Act, and there is no doubt that busy federal judges would like Congress to clarify what seems clear: that delay resulting from a defendant’s request for an extension of time to file a pretrial motion should be automatically excludable from the speedy trial clock to prevent creating a legal loophole for dilatory defendants.