WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take Bobby Chen's case involving a run-down Baltimore row house razed by the city, it looked past the fact he was too poor to pay the court's filing fee and had no attorney. But now Chen can't be found, something unheard of at the nation's highest court.
The Supreme Court agrees to take less than 1 percent of the roughly 10,000 petitions it receives every year, but it was even rarer for the court to take a case like Chen's. On average, the court takes just 10 petitions a year like his, in which the party making the request is too poor to pay the court's $300 filing fee.
But since the court agreed to take Chen's case in November, he hasn't surfaced. Dec. 22 was Chen's deadline to mail his main legal brief in the case. The court hadn't heard from him as of Tuesday, said Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg.
The court's Clerk's Office, which corresponds with parties who have a case before the court, has tried to reach Chen by letter and email. But it's not clear he got the messages, Arberg said. And he didn't list a phone number when he asked the court to take his case. The Associated Press also tried to reach Chen by email, but the message bounced back as undeliverable. Efforts to find a telephone number were also unsuccessful.
Today, the Baltimore lot on East Chase Street where Chen's three-story row house used to stand is vacant. City records show he purchased the property just north of the city's Johns Hopkins hospital campus in 2000 for $900. Chen wrote in court documents that he'd been renovating the home when the city demolished it in November 2008, claiming it was unsafe. He sued as a result.
Chen's case got dismissed because he failed to give the court an address where he could be reached. His second lawsuit was filed just two days before a legal deadline, but then Chen failed to notify the people he was suing that he'd filed the lawsuit. After missing the notification deadline he asked for and got an extension, but that extension was later found to be improper and his case was again dismissed. Now the dispute over the extension is at the heart of his Supreme Court case.
Arberg, the Supreme Court spokeswoman, declined to say what the court might do with the case if it doesn't hear from Chen. But lawyers familiar with the case, including one representing the city of Baltimore, said the court has a few options. It could dismiss the case. It could appoint a lawyer for Chen. And it could do nothing for now or mount a more extensive search for him.
William K. Suter, who served as the court's clerk from 1991 to 2013, says he couldn't remember a similar instance in his more than 20 years at the court. But the Supreme Court staff has solved missing persons cases before, he said. Once, he needed a picture of a former court employee and no one could find one. The Supreme Court's police force eventually tracked down and got a photograph from the man's family in Maine, Suter said.
"What I suspect they'll do is keep it pending for a length of time," he said of Chen's case.
Matthew Nayden, an attorney who represents the city of Baltimore in Chen's case, said his office is continuing to prepare and he's making no predictions about what the Supreme Court or Bobby Chen will do. Nayden's colleague, Adam Levine, said Chen has always been a little hard to figure out, and a little unpredictable.
"At the last minute he'll pop up and ask for more time or something like that," Levine said.
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