With Justice Neil Gorsuch now behind the bench, the United States Supreme Court is back at full strength and eager to tackle some of the country’s most pressing legal issues. Unlike last year, the current docket is stacked with blockbuster cases, including those related to LGBTQ rights, privacy and partisan gerrymandering. 

There are also a number of cases on the docket that haven’t drawn the same level of attention as those big-ticket items but are nevertheless worthy of analysis. One of those cases, Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, is being heard this morning.

Charmaine Hamer was terminated as an intake specialist for Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHS) and Fannie Mae’s Mortgage Help Center. She sued her former employers, claiming they discriminated against her on the basis of age, among other things. A federal trial court granted a “summary judgment” for the defendants in the case, which means it essentially found no genuine issue in the case.

Hamer sought to appeal that judgment; under the applicable rules, she had 30 days in which to do so. Six days before the expiration of that 30-day period, her lawyer submitted a motion back in the trial court to extend that deadline by two months. The court granted that request, and Hamer eventually filed her appeal before the end of that additional period. 

Fannie Mae and NHS asserted that the appeal was untimely, citing a portion of the Federal Rules of Appellate Rules that provides that “[n]o extension ... may exceed 30 days after the prescribed time or 14 days after the date when the order granting the motion is entered, whichever is later.” 

Hamer, in turn, cited another law stating that “the district court may, upon motion filed not later than 30 days after the expiration of the time otherwise set for bringing appeal, extend the time for appeal upon a showing of excusable neglect or good cause.” The appellate court reviewed the arguments, then rejected Hamer’s position and dismissed her appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

At first blush, this case may seem like the kind of hyper-technical dispute that scares people away from attending law school — and pushes practicing attorneys into a state of perpetual despair. But, putting aside the specifics of the case, it touches on one of the most significant aspects of our legal system: the role of procedure in determining outcomes.

When I was a first-year law student, I had an early morning class on civil procedure, which focused on the rules related to litigating civil cases in federal court. I had a famous professor who wore three-piece suits from which he would occasionally withdraw a pocket watch, presumably to track how long it took one of us to flail away in a meager attempt to answer his questions. One of his mantras was something to the effect of “give me procedure over substance any day,” the idea being that he could win a case purely through his intimate grasp of procedure. I was skeptical. Doesn’t substance — justice — always prevail in the end?

Now, a quarter-century later, I’m a convert. Cases are often won or lost based on a lawyer’s ability to adhere to filing deadlines or to “preserve” an issue for appellate review by making a fully-developed objection at trial. After all, before you can win on the merits of a case, you must first have the matter heard by the appropriate court.

On the one hand, this may come across as punitive — that the system is riddled with procedural obstacles designed to prevent access. What’s worse, those obstacles might disproportionately affect people without the means or the experience to navigate the system effectively. To some extent, that’s a fair critique.

On the other hand, procedures help to sharpen and clarify the main issues in legal disputes and prevent the chaos that would inevitably ensue without clear guidelines. Statutes of limitation that impose firm deadlines for filing a lawsuit? They’re aimed at motivating litigants to submit claims while the facts are fresh and the matter is still of interest. Obligations to preserve issues for review? This principle is grounded in the idea that trial judges should resolve all the key issues in a timely fashion, rather than letting litigants sandbag their opponents by raising new topics years later on appeal. 

For the system to work at all, it’s essential that court procedures remain transparent and consistent.

When the rules are ambiguous — as in Hamer where two sources of law may suggest different answers to the question about the availability of an extension to a filing deadline — then it falls on the courts, and ultimately the Supreme Court, to find a path forward. And that path should be well lit so that all litigants can see the route to follow if they wish to have their cases heard and resolved on their merits.