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Supreme Court Makes Important Ruling for 2241 Motions and Savings Clause: Jones

The Supreme Court made an important ruling in Jones v. Hendrix. This ruling effectively ended the litigation over the Savings Clause and made circumstances more difficult for incarcerated persons where subsequent non-retroactive changes in the law may have previously made them innocent. 

The Supreme Court made an important ruling in Jones v. Hendrix. This ruling effectively ended the litigation over the Savings Clause and made circumstances more difficult for incarcerated persons where subsequent non-retroactive changes in the law may have previously made them innocent.

Syllabus of Jones v. Hendrix

 No. 21–857. Argued November 1, 2022—Decided June 22, 2023 

In 2000, the District Court for the Western District of Missouri sentenced petitioner Marcus DeAngelo Jones after he was convicted 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 affirmed Jones’ convictions and sentence. Jones then filed a motion pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2255, which resulted in the vacatur of one of his concurrent §922(g) sentences. Many years later, this Court held in Rehaif v. United States, 588 U. S. ___, that a defendant’s knowledge of the status that disqualifies him from owning a firearm is an element of a §922(g) conviction. Rehaif ’s holding abrogated contrary Eighth Circuit precedent appliedby 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, the Eastern Districtof Arkansas. The District Court dismissed Jones’ habeas petition forlack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed. 

Held: Section 2255(e) does not allow a prisoner asserting an intervening change in interpretation of a criminal statute to circumvent the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996’s (AEDPA) restrictions on second or successive §2255 motions by filing a §2241 habeas petition. Pp. 3–25.

(a) Congress created §2255 as a remedial vehicle by which federal prisoners could collaterally attack their sentences by motion in the sentencing court, rather than by a petition for a writ of habeas corpusunder §2241 in the district of confinement. The “sole purpose” of §2255 was to address the “serious administrative problems” created by district courts collaterally reviewing one another’s proceedings without access to needed evidence and “aggravated” by the concentration offederal prisoners in certain judicial districts that therefore faced “an inordinate number of habeas corpus actions.” United States v. Hayman, 342 U. S. 205, 212–214, 219. To make this change effective, Congress generally barred federal prisoners “authorized” to file a §2255 motion from filing a petition under §2241. But—in a provision of §2255(e) now known as the saving clause—Congress preserved access to §2241 in cases where “the remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [a prisoner’s] detention.” 

Congress later enacted AEDPA, which, as relevant here, barred second or successive §2255 motions unless based on either “newly discovered evidence,” §2255(h)(1), or “a new rule of constitutional law,” §2255(h)(2). Some courts faced with AEDPA’s second-or-successive restrictions held that §2255 was “inadequate and ineffective” under the saving clause when AEDPA’s restrictions barred a prisoner from seeking relief based on a new interpretation of a criminal statute that circuit precedent had foreclosed at the time of the prisoner’s trial, appeal,and first §2255 motion. 

Section 2255(e)’s saving clause does not authorize that end-run around AEDPA. The clause preserves recourse to §2241 in cases where unusual circumstances make it impossible or impracticable to seek relief in the sentencing court, as well as for challenges to detention other than collateral attacks on a sentence. But §2255(h) specifies the two limited conditions in which federal prisoners may bring second or successive collateral attacks on their sentences. The inability of a prisoner with a statutory claim to satisfy §2255(h) does not mean that theprisoner may bring the claim in a §2241 petition. Pp. 3–12.

(b) Jones and the United States each advance unpersuasive theories of when and why §2255(h)’s exclusion of statutory claims sometimes renders §2255 inadequate or ineffective for purposes of the saving clause. Pp. 12–25.

(1) Jones argues that §2255 is necessarily “inadequate or ineffective to test” a prisoner’s claim if the §2255 court fails to apply the correct substantive law. But the saving clause is concerned with the adequacy or effectiveness of the remedial vehicle (“the remedy by motion”), not any court’s asserted errors of law. Next, Jones argues that courts of equity would afford relief from “inadequate” legal remedies in a broad range of circumstances; to the extent relevant to§2255(e), this proves at most that a variety of practical obstacles mighttrigger the saving clause, cf. Hayman, 342 U. S., at 215, n. 23, not that the clause offers an exemption from AEDPA’s limits on second or successive collateral attacks. Jones further argues that the saving clause’s use of the present tense (“is inadequate or ineffective”) means that §2241 is available whenever a prisoner is presently unable to file a §2255 motion. That argument would nullify AEDPA’s limits on collateral relief. 

Jones suggests that denying him the chance to raise his Rehaif claim in a §2241 petition would violate the Suspension Clause, U. S. Const., Art. I, §9, cl. 2. This argument fails because it would extend the writ of habeas corpus far beyond its scope when the Constitution was drafted and ratified. Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam, 591 U. S. ___, ___. When the Suspension Clause was adopted, Jones’ Rehaif claim would not have been cognizable in habeas at all. At the founding, a sentence after conviction “by a court of competent jurisdiction” was “ ‘in itself sufficient cause’ ” for a prisoner’s continued detention. Brown v. Davenport, 596 U. S. ___, ___ (quoting Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 193, 202). Of particular relevance here, a habeas courthad no power to “look beyond the judgment” to “re-examine the chargeson which it was rendered” for substantive errors of law—even “if . . . the [sentencing] court ha[d] misconstrued the law, and ha[d] pronounced an offence to be punishable criminally, which [was] not so.” Id., at 202, 209. While Jones argues that pre-founding practice was otherwise, he fails to identify a single clear case of habeas being used to relitigate a conviction after trial by a court of general criminal jurisdiction. 

The principles of Ex parte Watkins guided this Court’s understanding of the habeas writ throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. See Brown, 596 U. S., at ___, n. 1 (collecting cases). It was not until 1974, in Davis v. United States, 417 U. S. 333, that the Court held for the first time that a substantive error of statutory law could be acognizable ground for a collateral attack on a federal court’s criminal judgment. See id., at 342–347. The Suspension Clause neither constitutionalizes that innovation nor requires its extension to a second or successive collateral attack. 

Jones’ remaining constitutional arguments are no more persuasive. He argues that denying him a new opportunity for collateral review of his Rehaif claim threatens Congress’s exclusive power to define crimes,but a court does not usurp legislative power simply by misinterpretingthe law in a given case. Next, Jones points to Fiore v. White, 531 U. S. 225 (per curiam), which applied the rule that due process requires thatthe prosecution prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. But due process does not guarantee a direct appeal, McKane v. Durston, 153 U. S. 684, 687, let alone the opportunity to have legal issues redetermined in successive collateral attacks. Finally, theEighth Amendment’s constraint on the kinds of punishments governments may inflict creates no independent entitlement to a second round of postconviction review. Pp. 12–20. 4

(2) The Government asks the Court to adopt a novel interpretation of §2255(e)’s saving clause based on an elaborate argument. Starting from the premise that the words “inadequate or ineffective” implyreference to a “benchmark” of adequacy and effectiveness, the Government equates that benchmark with the types of claims cognizable in federal habeas petitions by state prisoners under the general habeas statutes. The Government ultimately concludes that §2255(h) renders§2255 “inadequate or ineffective to test” a federal prisoner’s statutoryclaim in cases where the prisoner has already filed one §2255 motionand the claim otherwise satisfies pre-AEDPA habeas principles, which generally will require “a ‘colorable showing of factual innocence.’ ” McCleskey v. Zant, 499 U. S. 467, 495 (quoting Kuhlmann v. Wilson, 477 U. S. 436, 454 (plurality opinion)). 

The Court sees no indication that the saving clause adopts the Government’s state-prisoner-habeas benchmark. In any event, that benchmark has uncertain relevance to the question presented here because federal habeas relief does not lie for errors of state law. The Government’s theory ultimately rests instead on its assertion that §2255(h) is simply not clear enough to support the inference that Congress entirely closed the door on pure statutory claims not brought ina federal prisoner’s initial §2255 motion. That assertion is unpersuasive. 

The Government asserts that the Court must require “the clearest command” before construing AEDPA to “close [the] courthouse doors”on “a strong equitable claim” for relief. Holland v. Florida, 560 U. S. 631, 646, 649 (internal quotation marks omitted). But AEDPA’s restrictions embody Congress’s policy judgment regarding the appropriate balance between finality and error correction. The Court declines to adopt a presumption against finality. Further, the Court typically has found clear-statement rules appropriate when a statute implicates historically or constitutionally grounded norms that the Court would not expect Congress to unsettle lightly. See, e.g., Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Servs., 594 U. S. ___, ___ (per curiam). As far as history and the Constitution are concerned, “there is nothing incongruous about a system in which this kind of error—the application of a since-rejected statutory interpretation—cannot be remedied after final judgment,” George v. McDonough, 596 U. S. ___, ___, and thus nothing fundamentally surprising about Congress declining to make such errors remediable in a second or successive collateral attack. Pp. 20–25. 

8 F. 4th 683, affirmed. 

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and ALITO, GORSUCH, KAVANAUGH, and BARRETT, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR and KAGAN, JJ., filed a dissenting opinion. JACKSON, J., filed a dissenting opinion. 

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