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Justices split on rules for appeal time limits

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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, breaking into unusual alliances, ruled Tuesday that federal judges, on their own initiative, can correct a state's error in math and dismiss an inmate's appeal that misses a filing deadline.

By a 5-4 vote, justices dealt a defeat to Florida inmate Patrick Day, who missed the deadline for seeking federal court review of his state second-degree murder conviction by three weeks.

The decision marked the first time the court's newest member, Justice Samuel Alito, joined in a ruling since he came on the bench in late January.

Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts -- President Bush's nominees to the court -- were part of a majority that included liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a frequent swing voter.

In an opinion written by Ginsburg, the majority said federal judges are not required to check the math a state uses to determine whether a prisoner has filed an appeal on time.

But a judge who notices an error shouldn't be required "to suppress that knowledge," she wrote.

In Day's case, a state attorney thought the inmate had filed his appeal on time. A federal magistrate judge noticed the error in the state attorney's math and gave Day the chance to argue why his case shouldn't be dismissed.

Eventually, the case was dismissed and the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

In one of two dissents, Justice John Paul Stevens chastised the majority for not waiting until the court had dealt with another case that raises similar issues brought by another inmate.

Justice Stephen Breyer sided with Stevens and with Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote another dissent.

Scalia accused the majority of ignoring long-standing rules and court decisions that were skeptical of such deadlines because of concern that a prisoner could be incarcerated illegally.

"We repeatedly asserted that the passage of time alone could not extinguish the ... rights of a person subject to unconstitutional incarceration," Scalia wrote in the dissent, also joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The case is Day v. McDonough, 04-1324.

--- On the Net:

Supreme Court: www.supremecourtus.gov

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