The US Supreme Court Tuesday heard opening arguments for two cases concerning legal errors and whether courts can, and should, correct them. In George v. McDonough, the Court is considering the meaning of “clear and unmistakable error” in a statute, and whether the Depart of Veterans Affairs (VA) improperly interpreted the statute when denying veteran benefits. In Kemp v. United States, the Court is considering the interpretation of criminal law and federal civil procedure rules.
The petitioner in George v. McDonough is veteran Kevin George, who was denied VA disability benefits in the 1970s after the VA determined that his mental health condition was pre-existing and thus unrelated to–and not aggravated by–his military service. George appealed the VA’s denial of disability benefits in 2014, arguing that the VA had erred in its decision because he had passed his medical examination; thus, his mental health condition was possibly related to an aggravated by his military service. The VA denied his appeal because this was not the type of “clear and unmistakable error” that would be appealable. George now argues that their denial was based on a regulatory interpretation that was later deemed invalid.
In Kemp v. United States, the Court is considering which provision of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure applies to a prisoner’s effort to re-open a judgment based on a legal error. The petitioner, Dexter Kemp, filed a motion to overturn his federal criminal conviction, and the court erred in dismissing that motion. The court concedes that they erred; the issue before the Court relates to how Rule 60(b) should apply to the error. Kemp argues that 60(b)(6) applies, whereas the government argues that 60(b)(1) should apply. Parties rely on Rule 60(b) when they believe a judgment has been entered against them incorrectly, but (b)(1) and (b)(6) differ. The central issue is the meaning of “mistake” in 60(b)(1), and whether it can apply to the court’s error in Kemp’s case. The debate thus centers around plain language versus structure, and how Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 60(b) should be interpreted.
Both cases raise important questions about statutory interpretation and legal errors, as well as at what point the current Court will overturn precedent.