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SCOTUS Limits Reach of Habeas Corpus for Federal Prisoners

Posted by Ann Fitz | Jun 23, 2023 | 0 Comments

Thursday morning, a 6 to 3 divided Supreme Court issued a significant decision in Jones v. Hendrix, No. 21-857 (June 22, 2023), limiting the availability of habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 for federal prisoners.  Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett.  Justices Sotomayor and Kagan filed a short dissenting opinion, and Justice Jackson filed a lengthy dissenting opinion.

 Jones was given a 27-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2000 on two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 922(g)(1), and one count of making false statements to acquire a firearm.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Jones' convictions and sentence. On appeal, his lawyers argued that he thought his record had been cleared and no longer was prohibited from having a gun. Jones then filed a motion pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2255, which resulted one of his concurrent §922(g) sentences being vacated.

Many years later, this Court held in Rehaif v. United States, 588 U. S. ___ (2019), that prosecutors must prove that people charged with violating federal gun laws knew they were not allowed to have a weapon. Rehaif 's holding abrogated contrary Eighth Circuit precedent applied by the courts in Jones' trial and direct appeal. Seeking to collaterally attack his remaining § 922(g) conviction based on Rehaif 's statutory holding, Jones filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U. S. C. § 2241 in the district of his imprisonment. Jones had argued that he should be allowed another chance to get his conviction thrown out following Rehaif.  The District Court dismissed Jones' habeas petition for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The issue in the Jones case is technical, though important, and involves when defendants can make their claims in court, not the facts of Jones' case.

The Court's ruling limits habeas relief available to federal prisoners under the savings clause if: (1) the case is final on direct review; (2) the claim is based on an intervening and retroactive Supreme Court decision interpreting and narrowing the reach of a federal statute, see, e.g., Dubin v. United States, No. 11-10 (June 8, 2023) (holding, under 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1)'s crime of “aggravated identity theft,” a defendant “uses” another person's means of identification “in relation to” a predicate offense when the use is at the crux of what makes the conduct criminal); and, (3) the prisoner previously litigated a motion to vacate under 25 U.S.C. § 2255.  It does not impact prisoners whose cases are still pending on direct review, prisoners who have not previously litigated § 2255 motions, or prisoners who otherwise meet the gatekeeping criteria for filing second or successive § 2255 motions under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2244(h)(1)-(2).

Justice Thomas wrote for the court that people who have used up their appeals don't get another day in court “based solely on a more favorable interpretation of statutory law adopted after his conviction became final.”  Justice Thomas' majority opinion starts this way:

This case concerns the interplay between two statutes: 28 U.S.C. § 2241, the general habeas corpus statute, and § 2255, which provides an alternative postconviction remedy for federal prisoners. Since 1948, Congress has provided that a federal prisoner who collaterally attacks his sentence ordinarily must proceed by a motion in the sentencing court under § 2255, rather than by a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under § 2241. To that end, § 2255(e) bars a federal prisoner from proceeding under § 2241 “unless . . . the [§ 2255] remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.”

Separately, since the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), second or successive § 2255 motions are barred unless they rely on either “newly discovered evidence,” § 2255(h)(1), or “a new rule of constitutional law,” § 2255(h)(2). A federal prisoner may not, therefore, file a second or successive § 2255 motion based solely on a more favorable interpretation of statutory law adopted after his conviction became final and his initial § 2255 motion was resolved.

The question presented is whether that limitation on second or successive motions makes § 2255 “inadequate or ineffective” such that the prisoner may proceed with his statutory claim under § 2241. We hold that it does not.

Most federal appeals court would have allowed Jones to reopen his case, but Thomas wrote that those decisions amounted to an “end-run around” AEDPA.

In dissent, the three liberal justices wrote that the decision produces “bizarre outcomes” and “disturbing results.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted that the ruling, coupled with other recent limits on appeals imposed by the court, have transformed “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.”

About the Author

Ann Fitz

Attorney Ann Fitz Attorney Ann Fitz has 20 years of experience as a federal criminal attorney and appellate practice attorney.  She began her career as a prosecutor in 2003 and started her own federal criminal defense practice in 2007.  She is devoted to protecting the rights of the accused in f...


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