The Supreme Court appeared divided on Wednesday as it weighed whether a Hong Kong woman who was strip-searched while in immigration detention waited too long before suing the U.S. government for monetary damages over her treatment.
During a one-hour argument in the case, the liberals on the nine-member court seemed sympathetic to the plight of Kwai Fun Wong, a minister of a religious organization called the Wu-Wei Tien Tao Association. She was detained in Oregon in 1999 after the U.S. government concluded she had entered the country illegally.
During her confinement at the Multnomah County jail in Portland, she was strip-searched and her request for vegetarian food was rejected by authorities. Wong, who has British citizenship, was later deported and has not lived in the United States since.
As required, Wong initially filed a complaint with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), an agency that has since been renamed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. After the agency denied that request, she filed suit seeking damages from the U.S. government in federal court in Oregon under a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The court’s conservatives seemed to back the government, which has argued that Wong’s 2002 lawsuit was barred because she waited longer than the statute of limitations of six months to file it after the INS rejected her initial request for damages. Wong’s lawyers say she filed after the six-month deadline only because of delays in the court system that were out of her control.
The case has since bounced around the court system. Most recently, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Wong’s favor in October 2013, prompting the government to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberals, seemed to concede that the law was on the government’s side but questioned whether it was fair for such lawsuits to be blocked just because a plaintiff misses a deadline.
“All kinds of odd things can happen to a victim,” Breyer said. For example, a lawyer could miss a deadline because of illness or there could be a natural disaster, Breyer said.
The ruling in Wong’s case, along with another case the court heard arguments in on Wednesday, is likely to affect similar cases brought against the government for a wide range of conduct. A ruling is due by the end of June.
The case is United States v. Wong, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1074.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)