Director, Center for Supreme Court AdvocacyNational Association of Attorneys General
This Report summarizes opinions issued on May 16 and 23, 2022 (Part I); and cases granted review on May 16, 2022 (Part II).
Case Granted Review: Jones v. Hendrix, 21-857
Jones v. Hendrix, 21-857. At issue is whether a federal inmate who―because circuit precedent resolved the matter against him―did not timely argue that the statute of conviction did not criminalize his conduct, and who is barred from filing a successive motion to vacate his conviction under 28 U.S.C. §2255, may file a habeas petition under §2241 after the Supreme Court makes clear in a retroactive decision that the circuit precedent was wrong. In 2000, Marcus Jones was convicted of being a felon-in-possession and making false statements to acquire a firearm. At that time, Eighth Circuit precedent held that the government need not prove a defendant’s knowledge that he is a convicted felon under the felon-in-possession statute. Jones filed numerous appeals and post-conviction challenges on other grounds, including motions to vacate his conviction under §2255. Then, in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), the Supreme Court held as a matter of statutory interpretation that the government must prove that a defendant charged with felon-in-possession knew of his status as a felon. Successive motions under §2255 are only permitted for newly discovered evidence or new rules of constitutional law, not new rules of statutory interpretation such as Rehaif. The section’s saving clause, however, allows an inmate to file a habeas petition if the remedy under §2255 is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” Because Jones was barred from filing a successive §2255 motion, he filed a habeas petition under §2241 based on the saving clause. The district court dismissed Jones’s petition, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed. 8 F.4th 683.
The Eighth Circuit recognized that Jones was in a “Catch-22” because (1) a Rehaif-type argument would have failed under circuit precedent at the time of his first motion, and (2) he was barred from raising the argument in a successive motion once Rehaif was decided. Although most circuit courts would agree with Jones that he could file a §2241 petition thanks to the §2255 saving clause, the Eighth Circuit adopted the minority view for three reasons. First, §2255 is adequate if an inmate had an opportunity to “test” the legality of his detention. The saving clause is “interested in opportunity, not outcome,” and Jones was free to present his argument on direct appeal or in his initial §2255 motion. Although circuit precedent was against him, Jones might have succeeded before the en banc court or the Supreme Court. Second, said the court, the saving clause is triggered only if the statutory remedy is inadequate, but §2255 could provide the relief Jones sought in an appropriate case. The fact that precedent is against an inmate does not mean that the statute itself is inadequate. Finally, the court noted that §2255 authorizes successive motions for new rules of constitutional law; allowing Jones to raise a new rule of statutory law would work an “end run” around the statute’s express limitations. The Eighth Circuit also rejected Jones’s claim that Congress unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus by denying him a meaningful opportunity to test his Rehaif claim because Jones’s case did not involve the type of Star Chamber abuses the habeas writ was originally meant to remedy. Even if the Suspension Clause’s scope is not limited to the writ as it existed in 1789, the court disagreed that Jones lacked a meaningful opportunity to raise his argument. As the court already noted, Jones had the opportunity to raise his argument on direct appeal or in his first §2255 motion.
Jones argues in his petition that the Eighth Circuit’s rule denies relief for those “imprisoned for conduct that is later declared no crime.” He argues that §2255 cannot test the legality of detention at all if the court applies the wrong substantive law, and the odds of en banc or Supreme Court review are extremely low. Moreover, longstanding rules require a clear statement of congressional intent to repeal habeas jurisdiction, and Jones argues that no such intent is present in §2255. He also argues that the Eighth Circuit rule puts counsel in an ethical dilemma because counsel must either argue against settled precedent and risk sanctions for making frivolous arguments or else lose any ability to challenge a conviction in the future. Jones also argues that the Eighth Circuit rule raises three constitutional issues that the majority rule avoids. First, barring collateral relief where an inmate can show that no crime was committed might violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against conviction for innocent conduct. Second, denying a remedy to an innocent person may violate the right to due process. Third, the Suspension Clause guarantees access to habeas corpus unless Congress has suspended the writ, and a habeas petition must be allowed at a meaningful time, which in this case means after Rehaif clarified the law.
Because the government has addressed this issue in numerous other petitions, its brief in opposition does not meaningfully discuss §2255’s saving clause. In its petition in United States v. Wheeler, 18-420, however, the government argued that the majority rule “would put the [saving] clause at odds with other provisions that expressly limit the availability of collateral relief; would create an anomalous scheme in which statutory claims receive more favorable treatment than constitutional ones; and would resurrect many of the practical problems that led Congress to enact Section 2255 in the first place.” For example, successive §2255 motions are allowed in only two circumstances, neither of which is based on intervening statutory decisions. A successive motion would be permitted for a new rule of constitutional law, but it would be subject to a one-year statute of limitations. A habeas petition based on a new rule of statutory interpretation would not be subject to that same limit. The government argued that Congress could not have intended the anomalous result that statutory claims are treated more favorably than constitutional claims. The government also argued that the focus of the saving clause is whether a type of challenge is cognizable under §2255, not whether the challenge would be successful “in a particular court at a particular time.” In other words, §2255 is inadequate only if a class of argument is categorically excluded, not when an argument fails on the merits.