One of the constants learned in law school was that jurisdiction of the court could never be waived. In fact, if the parties did not bring it up, the court was under obligation to raise it, sua sponte, and refuse to hear the case. See, e.g., Marzitelli v. City of Little Canada, 582 N.W.2d 904, 907 (Minn. 1998). That was the “traditional” rule.
In a case from 2000, however, the Minnesota Supreme Court found a reason to look beyond the “traditional rule” to the so-called “modern rule.” The case of Bode v. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 612 N.W.2d 862 (Minn. 2000) involved a dispute over segments of Bodes’ property reclassified as wetlands. The classification upset the Bodes. They showed their disdain by making improvements that allowed them to continue farming. The parties’ protracted proceedings could generously be described as acrimonious. The matter was argued before the DNR and its decisions were, in turn, challenged in the district court. Various parts of the entire matter went up and down the appellate chain multiple times during 18 years of litigation.
In July, 1998, the Bodes, still unhappy with the decision the DNR had wrought, brought a motion to vacate an appeal instituted by the DNR. The Bodes argued that the court of appeals had lacked subject matter jurisdiction as the notice of appeal was filed a day late. The Court of Appeals found that there was a string of cases that characterized such “procedural irregularities” as “incurable jurisdictional defects”. The court of appeals agreed there had, in fact, been no subject matter jurisdiction.
The DNR then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Under the traditional view, the court found, there is no time limit to bring a challenge for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. However, the court concluded that under the modern view, an interest in finality must also be considered. Given the years between the tardily-filed appeal and the current appeal, the court noted the actions that had occurred in reliance on the decision. All those actions would now be open to re-examination.
The court referred to the Restatement on Judgment that set out the “modern view” rule. The Restatement indicated that once a determination was rendered on the merits of a matter, the balance of considerations tips in favor of maintaining the decision unless one of three situations is present: (1) the judgment was so plainly beyond the court’s jurisdiction so as to constitute manifest abuse; (2) recognizing the judgment would substantially impact the authority of another tribunal; or (3) the absence of subject matter jurisdiction would implicate the fairness of the judgment. As the court found none of these factors were present, the court held that the Bodes’ motion was untimely.
In a six-sentence dissent, Justice Page called the majority’s decision a “mistake”.
It is arguable this was a bad case making bad law. While it is impossible to get inside the mind of the court, in one point in the opinion the court lamented that this litigation had dragged on for so many years. The fear of the fresh litigation that would ensue was no doubt in their thoughts.
In the years since the Bode decision, the case has been cited several dozen times by the Minnesota courts. Most of those times, however, the results were the same as would have been reached had the court applied the traditional rule. Interestingly enough, in City of Shorewood v. Johnson, A15-0514, 2015.MN.0001488 (Minn. Ct. App. 11/02/2015) (VersusLaw), where the modern rule did affect the outcome, the court was faced with a similar case where the court noted, “21 years of litigation in state and federal court––including six years after the judgment-remind us why we recognize a ‘general desirability that judgments be final’.”
Perhaps Bode is the final word on subject matter jurisdiction. However, the elastic standard set out by the Court seems to guarantee that, despite this final word, the question will always be up for litigation.