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Court blocks pathway for federal prisoners to raise legal innocence claims

Looking up at the marble roof of the Supreme Court porch

On Thursday, the Supreme Court held that a federal prisoner cannot raise a claim of legal innocence if he has already challenged his conviction – even if that claim was unavailable at the time he filed his challenge. The court’s decision in Jones v. Hendrix turns on the interpretation of the federal habeas statute, as amended by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. It is the latest in a string of cases construing AEDPA in which the court has held, as Justice Clarence Thomas put it in his majority opinion, that “Congress has chosen finality over error correction.”

To understand that decision, a bit of statutory history is needed: Prior to 1948, federal prisoners could challenge their convictions through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus – the “Great Writ” that traces its origins to the Magna Carta – in the judicial district in which they were imprisoned. That setup had practical problems: It meant that districts with larger numbers of prisoners were inundated with habeas petitions, and it was sometimes difficult to obtain the court record from the district where the person had been convicted and sentenced. Thus, in 1948, Congress passed 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which routed all habeas petitions into a “motion to vacate” the conviction or sentence, to be filed in the original sentencing court. The statute replaced the habeas remedy with the motion to vacate, unless the “remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [the prisoner’s] detention.” This provision, known as the “saving clause,” preserved habeas for those prisoners.

Fast forward to 1996: In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed AEDPA.  That law restricted prisoners’ ability to bring “second or successive” motions to vacate under Section 2255, effectively giving them one bite at the apple to challenge a conviction, except under two circumstances: (1) when newly discovered evidence would be sufficient to establish that no reasonable factfinder would have found the person guilty; and (2) when a new rule of constitutional law, which was previously unavailable, was made retroactive by the Supreme Court. AEDPA left the saving clause intact.

This statutory past is prologue to the case of Marcus DeAngelo Jones.  Jones was convicted in 2000 of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to over 27 years in prison. Nearly two decades later, the Supreme Court decided in Rehaif v. United States that the government had to prove that the defendant knew he was an unlawful possessor of a firearm, an element not proven at Jones’s trial. The Rehaif decision established that Jones was legally innocent based on the court’s interpretation of the felon-in-possession statute. But he had already long ago filed and lost his Section 2255 motion and was therefore barred under AEDPA from bringing another one. Jones accordingly argued that the saving clause permitted him to file a habeas petition, because Section 2255’s bar on second and successive petitions rendered the motion to vacate an “inadequate or ineffective” vehicle to challenge his detention.

By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court disagreed. The court held that the historical understanding of the saving clause is limited to “unusual circumstances in which it is impossible or impracticable for a prisoner to seek relief from the sentencing court.”  These circumstances included situations in which the sentencing court had been dissolved or the prisoner otherwise could not be transported there – the saving clause, Thomas noted, was enacted before the construction of the Interstate Highway System. They could also include challenges to the conditions of detention, rather than the legality of the sentence. 

The court went on to hold that because AEPDA carves out only two exceptions for the bar on successive motions for newly discovered evidence and previously unavailable constitutional claims, by “negative implication,” Congress intended the bar to apply to previously unavailable statutory claims, like the one Jones raised. To hold otherwise, Thomas reasoned, would be an “end-run around AEDPA” and would produce the perverse result that prisoners with “nonconstitutional claims,” who would be able to pursue habeas petitions free from AEDPA’s procedural hurdles, would have a “superior remedy” to those with constitutional ones.

The court rejected arguments by both Jones and the government to preserve a remedy for individuals who, although having been convicted, are rendered legally innocent by subsequent developments in statutory interpretation. The inability of such an individual with a statutory claim to satisfy one of Section 2255’s two exceptions “does not mean that he can bring his claim in a habeas petition under the saving clause,” the court said, “It means that he cannot bring it at all.”

In a methodical and sharp dissent, Justice Kentaji Brown Jackson pulled apart the majority’s reasoning piece by piece. Taking on its historical analysis, she noted that the purpose of the 1948 statute – which was undisturbed by AEDPA – was to afford prisoners the same rights they were entitled to pursue through a habeas petition, just in a more convenient forum. In her view, “[t]he saving clause expresses a congressional intent to maintain equivalence between what a prisoner could claim before and after” the statute was enacted; yet, the majority’s reasoning shrinks “the universe of previously available claims — the opposite of what Congress set out to do when it set up §2255.” 

Jackson also took aim at the court’s textual analysis of both the saving clause and AEDPA. As to the former, she argued that the majority effectively interpreted “inadequate or ineffective” to mean “impossible or impracticable,” a reading that is “entirely atextual.” As to the latter, Jackson looked at the historical backdrop in which AEDPA was passed, which provided clues that statutory claims were inadvertently omitted from the exceptions to successive Section 2255 motions. She also cited prior cases in which the court had held that Congress could restrict the habeas remedy only with a “clear statement” that it intended to do so — not, as the majority would have it, by “negative implication.” Jackson contended that the majority’s reading produces its own perverse result: A prisoner who decides not to file a Section 2255 motion or misses the deadline to do so would be able to raise a statutory claim later (because his motion would not be successive), while a prisoner who diligently pursues his rights would not. This result, she suggested, undermines Congress’s supposed preference for finality, because “a prisoner whose conviction became final 30 years ago can assert a Rehaif claim if he never previously filed a §2255 motion, whereas someone whose conviction became final 2 years ago cannot if he has already had a §2255 petition adjudicated.”

Jackson concluded with an “observation” that the court’s ruling “follows a recent series of troubling AEDPA interpretations” that “have now collectively managed to transform a statute that Congress designed to provide for a rational and orderly process of federal postconviction judicial review into an aimless and chaotic exercise in futility.” Throughout her dissent, Jackson repeatedly referenced the stakes of the decision for people, like Jones, who are serving time in prison despite being legally innocent of their crimes of conviction – a result she called “stunning in a country where liberty is a constitutional guarantee and the courts are supposed to be dispensing justice.” She noted that the majority only once used the word “innocence,” and that was in describing the government’s position. “If the majority has spared a thought for the appropriate standard when a petitioner is claiming legal innocence,” Jackson wrote, “I could not find it in the Court’s opinion.” 

Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan filed a separate dissent, agreeing with Jackson’s assessment of the “disturbing results” of the court’s decision. They lamented that “[a] prisoner who is actually innocent, imprisoned for conduct that Congress did not criminalize, is forever barred … from raising that claim, merely because he previously sought postconviction relief. It does not matter that an intervening decision of this Court confirms his innocence. By challenging his conviction once before, he forfeited his freedom.” Although their brief opinion – only two pages compared to Jackson’s 39 (and the majority’s 25) – urged a narrower remand to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit to apply the standard the government advanced, Sotomayor and Kagan took the unusual step of both signing the dissent (as they did in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization), signaling the widening gap between the court’s conservative majority and its liberal dissenters.

Recommended Citation: Noam Biale, Court blocks pathway for federal prisoners to raise legal innocence claims, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 23, 2023, 9:37 AM),