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Opinion analysis: Pretrial motions stop Speedy Trial clock

On Thursday, in United States v. Tinklenberg, the Court compared pretrial motions to parrots.  At issue in the case was how such motions should be treated under the Speedy Trial Act, which requires that a trial begin within seventy days of the defendant’s indictment or arraignment.  However, certain events can stop the Speedy Trial clock, including the “delay resulting from any pretrial motion.”  The district court, following every circuit that had considered the issue, excluded from its count all days on which pretrial motions were pending and found that sixty-nine nonexcludable days had elapsed between Tinklenberg’s indictment and his trial.  The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the exclusion for delay resulting from a pretrial motion applied only to the period that a trial was actually delayed (or expected to be delayed) by the consideration of such a motion.  Because the pretrial motions had not delayed Tinklenberg’s trial, the court of appeals reasoned, the days on which those motions were pending could not be excluded from the Speedy Trial calculation.  The Sixth Circuit found that the Speedy Trial clock had run beyond seventy days and dismissed the indictment.

In his opinion for the Court, Justice Breyer began by acknowledging that there are two “linguistically reasonable” interpretations of the phrase “delay resulting from.”  On the one hand the phrase might, as the Sixth Circuit concluded, mean that only those motions that actually delay (or are expected to delay) a trial stop the Speedy Trial clock.  But on the other hand, the statute might use the word “delay” in the sense of “interval” rather than “postponement.”  This is the point at which the parrots came in.  The Court explained that some statutes require judges to make individualized determinations – for example, whether a particular motion will delay a particular trial.  Others, by contrast, require only categorical determinations—for example, a statute may define extortion as a “crime of violence” or a parrot as a “wild bird.”  In the latter scenario, a judge need not investigate the particular characteristics of the crime or the bird at issue.  The Court concluded that the Speedy Trial Act has this structure as well.  It includes the “delay resulting from any pretrial motion” as one of several “periods of delay” and thereby defines the time that a pretrial motion is pending as such a period—just as another statute defines a parrot as a “wild bird” even though some parrots are tame.

This conclusion, the Court continued, was supported by a number of considerations.  First, the statute measures the period of excludable delay “from the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing on, or other prompt disposition of such motion,” but it does not refer to any effect upon the trial date.  Second, the other eleven courts of appeals all disagree with the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation; the Court explained that “[t]his unanimity among the lower courts about the meaning of a statute of great practical administrative importance in the daily working lives of busy trial judges is itself entitled to strong consideration.”  Moreover, the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation would make the statute more difficult to administer, for all of the reasons that individual determinations are more burdensome than categorical ones.  The Court referred to two of its own opinions which had held that the exclusion for pretrial motions is “automatic” and suggested that this view would be difficult to square with a case-by-case determination of the effects of pretrial motions.  The Court cited legislative history and noted that the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation could destabilize the calculation of other “periods of delay.”  For all of these reasons, the Court rejected that interpretation.

Although the Court overturned the Sixth Circuit’s treatment of pretrial motions, it nonetheless ruled in Tinklenberg’s favor on an alternative ground that was not encompassed within the question presented.  As Brooks Holland noted in his argument recap, Tinklenberg had argued that the Sixth Circuit incorrectly excluded other periods from the Speedy Trial calculation, including the period during which Tinklenberg was transported for a medical examination.  The statute stops the Speedy Trial clock for ten days of that transportation time, but presumes that any delay over ten days is unreasonable.  In Tinklenberg’s case, the delay amounted to twenty days.  Ten of those days were clearly excluded, but the Sixth Circuit also excluded eight weekend days and national holidays on the ground that the Speedy Trial Act incorporated Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 45(a), which—during the time relevant to this case—excluded such days from its computations of time.  (The Rule has since been amended.)  The Court held that the Speedy Trial Act did not incorporate Rule 45, noting that “[t]he Act does not say that it incorporates Rule 45” and that “[t]he Government has given us no good reason for reading it as incorporating the Rule.”  The Court instead applied the common law rule that weekends and holidays are counted unless a statute specifically excludes them. Counting weekends and holidays but excluding the days on which pretrial motions were pending, the Court calculated that the Speedy Trial clock had expired before Tinklenberg’s trial began.  It therefore affirmed the Sixth Circuit’s dismissal of his indictment.

Justice Scalia concurred in the Court’s judgment, but he wrote separately—in an opinion joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito—to explain that he would have used a different method of statutory interpretation.  Justice Scalia suggested that because the text of the Speedy Trial Act was perfectly clear, no extra-textual authority was required to interpret it.  On his account, the near unanimity of the circuit courts was evidence of this clarity and not an independent reason to interpret the statute a certain way.  Justice Scalia cited the Act’s reference to the dates that a motion was filed and resolved rather than to the date of trial, a structure echoed by the neighboring provisions which also calculate “periods of delay.”  He noted that the Speedy Trial Act determines the date when a given trial “must commence,” rather than the date on which it “should have commenced,” as a calculation that incorporated actual effects on the trial would seem to suggest.  He concluded by noting the administrative difficulties that would arise from the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation—although he quibbled that such difficulties “are not relevant on their own, but only because they bear upon the meaning of the text”—and by rejecting Tinklenberg’s arguments to the contrary.

Recommended Citation: James Bickford, Opinion analysis: Pretrial motions stop Speedy Trial clock, SCOTUSblog (May. 30, 2011, 10:48 AM),