Court deals with veterans' time limit on benefits

The Supreme Court on Monday wrestled with whether to enforce a deadline for military veterans who may have physical or mental problems to appeal the denial of benefits.

The high court on Monday heard an appeal from Doretha H. Henderson, wife of the late David Henderson.

Henderson's husband was discharged from the armed forces in 1952 after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He asked the Veterans Affairs Department for home care in 2001 and was denied. He missed a 120-day deadline for appeal by 15 days, blaming it on his illness.

A veterans court and federal appeals court refused to let him appeal. Henderson died Oct. 24, and his wife has taken up his case.

Congress meant for the appeals system to be helpful to veterans, said Lisa S. Blatt, Henderson's lawyer.

"If your very disability prevents you from filing or you have been abused by the VA — the VA bureaucracy — you were out of luck and out of court," she said of the appeals system.

Justice Stephen Breyer said that when corporations go to court, the legal system allows them to make appeals past the deadline if they have a good reason.

"Now, "if you have someone who served his country and was wounded and has post-traumatic stress syndrome or schizophrenia, to that person, you say ... 'If you don't meet the deadline, you're out,' no matter how excusable it is," Breyer said. "Who in Congress would have likely thought such a thing?"

Justice Department lawyer Eric D. Miller pointed to other appeals systems that do not grant extensions even for worthy reasons.

"There are many statutes, including the Hobbs Act, the immigration statute, that have no provision for exceptions," Miller said.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in this case because she was involved with it while serving in the solicitor general's office.

The case is Henderson v. Shinseki, 09-1036.