Does a prisoner who did not initially challenge certain aspects of their conviction have the right to challenge their conviction later via habeas corpus after the Supreme Court changed the standard of conviction for the related crime?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine the extent to which habeas relief is available to a prisoner after a Supreme Court case heightens the standard of conviction for the crime they were convicted of. The relevant statutory provision, 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e)’s saving clause, allows a prisoner to move for habeas relief if alternative remedies available under other subsections of § 2255 are “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [their] detention.” Petitioner Marcus DeAngelo Jones argues that because the lower court applied the wrong substantive law, the alternative remedies were ineffective in testing the legality of his detention, and that he is therefore entitled to habeas relief under § 2255(e). Jones further argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation of the statute renders § 2255(e) superfluous and violates many of Jones’s constitutional rights. Respondent Dewayne Hendrix counters that the § 2255(e) requires a showing of actual innocence, which he argues Jones cannot make, in order to trigger habeas relief, and that Jones’ constitutional concerns are misguided. The outcome of this case will determine the availability of post-conviction relief to prisoners following changes in relevant substantive law.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether federal inmates who did not — because established circuit precedent stood firmly against them — challenge their convictions on the ground that the statute of conviction did not criminalize their activity may apply for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C § 2241 after the Supreme Court later makes clear in a retroactively applicable decision that the circuit precedent was wrong and that they are legally innocent of the crime of conviction.
In December 1999, Marcus DeAngelo Jones was arrested at a convenience store in Columbia, Missouri as part of an undercover operation related to drug dealing. U.S. v. Jones at 808. At trial, the government introduced evidence showing that Jones had been in possession of a firearm on multiple occasions. Id. Jones possessed this firearm despite his several prior felony convictions. Id. In July 2000, Jones was convicted of making false statements to acquire a firearm and two counts of felony possession of a firearm. Id. Following the conviction, Jones filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence. Jones v. Hendrix at 2. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas initially denied the motion, but the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding that Jones had ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. On remand, the district court vacated one count of felony possession of a firearm due to the charge being duplicative in nature. Id. On remand, Jones’s requests for an appearance in court, appointed counsel, and a new sentencing hearing were all denied. Id. The district court’s denial of these requests was affirmed on appeal. Id. Following the unsuccessful appeal, Jones filed a number of unsuccessful postconviction challenges. Id. The challenges included both § 2255 motions as well as petitions to the United States Supreme Court for review. Id. Jones’s ability to make additional filings was eventually restricted for abuse of process. Id.
In 2019, the Supreme Court held that convictions for felony possession of a firearm require a defendant’s knowledge of their prohibited status. Id. at 2-3. When Jones was convicted, the government did not need to prove that Jones knew he was prohibited from possessing a firearm. Id. Despite the change in statutory interpretation, Jones was unable to file another § 2255 motion because a successive § 2255 motion can only be filed with newly discovered evidence or a new rule of constitutional law. Id. at 3. Throughout the review process, Jones conceded that the Supreme Court’s change in statutory interpretation did not meet either exception for a second § 2255 motion. Id.
Jones filed a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C § 2241. Id. at 1. The district court denied the petition and the Eighth Circuit affirmed. Id. at 2. The court rejected Jones’s argument that his § 2255 motion was an inadequate or ineffective remedy, a prerequisite to a successful habeas petition. Id. at 7-8. The court reasoned that the § 2255 motion could provide a remedy and that the reason the motion was unsuccessful was because of the since overturned case law. Id. Further, the court was unpersuaded by Jones’s contention that his inability to file a habeas petition had the same effect of suspending the right of habeas corpus, which is unconstitutional. Id. at 8-9. The court rebutted the argument, stating that the right to habeas corpus, as understood at the time of constitutional adoption, was only available for gross abuses of power. Id. at 9-10. Considering that the prior conviction was based on caselaw that at the time was controlling, the court reasoned that the remedy should not be available to Jones. Id. at 9-10.
THE MEANING AND REQUIREMENTS OF § 2255(e)
Jones argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation of § 2255(e) is incorrect for three reasons. First, Jones claims that the court’s interpretation of the word “test” to mean “to try” is unfaithful to the text of the statute and that the court cannot adequately or effectively test the legality of Jones’s detention if it applies the wrong substantive law. Brief for Petitioner, Marcus DeAngelo Jones at 16. Jones argues that to “test” the legality of the detention means to determine the “truth, genuineness, or quality” of its legality. Id. at 17. Thus, Jones argues, application of the wrong substantive law is inadequate to test the legality of his detention because it is ill suited to arrive at a just result. Id. at 20. Second, Jones contends that the Eighth Circuit erred in ignoring the present tense “is” in the text, namely, that the test of inadequacy or ineffectiveness should be determined at the time of filing for the current motion, rather than when a previous motion might have been filed. Id. at 27. As such, Jones asserts that the possibility of an en banc overruling in the past is irrelevant at the time the subsequent motion is filed and that the court erred when it considered that fact in its ruling. Id.
Third, Jones contends that courts should construe statutes so that all provisions are significant and purposeful, and therefore the court’s interpretation is inaccurate because it renders the saving clause of § 2255(e) superfluous. Id. at 30. Jones asserts that, under the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation, there are only two situations in which the saving clause could apply, both of which can be remedied by another statute without using the saving clause. Id. In the first situation, where a sentencing court has dissolved and therefore a prisoner cannot obtain § 2255 relief, they can bring a motion for habeas directly without relying on § 2255(e). Id. at 31. In the second situation, when a prisoner has been denied parole release or good time credits, they can also directly bring a habeas motion without resorting to § 2255(e). Id. Thus, Jones argues, § 2255(e) applies only in the very rare instance when a court that is not a court martial dissolves after sentencing, giving the provision little to no purpose and rendering it superfluous. Id.
Hendrix also argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation is incorrect, but further contends that there are additional requirements to invoking the saving clause. Brief for Respondent, Dewayne Hendrix at 12. Hendrix asserts that the present tense language that Jones points to requires an additional assessment as to whether a § 2255 remedy would be effective or adequate at the time of filing. Id. at 11. Hendrix argues that § 2255 allows a prisoner to collaterally attack their conviction if a change in substantive law deems their actions lawful and legitimate. Id. at 21. The decision that changes the substantive law, Hendrix further asserts, must have come from the Supreme Court because a circuit court decision is insufficient to qualify as a change in substantive law. Id. at 22.
Hendrix argues that another requirement to asserting a statutory claim, as Jones aims to do here, is showing actual innocence. Id. at 23. The standard for actual innocence, Hendrix maintains, is that a prisoner must “show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him” under the newly defined standards. Id. at 24. Hendrix further asserts that actual innocence does not include legal insufficiency, and as such the government is permitted to present additional evidence not presented in the original proceedings. Id. Thus, Hendrix argues, a prisoner must show they are factually innocent to qualify for habeas relief under the saving clause. Id. Accordingly, Hendrix asserts that the requirements for invoking the saving clause are two-fold: first, the prisoner must claim that there is a new Supreme Court statutory interpretation decision that establishes that their conduct was not criminal; and second, the prisoner must show that they are actually innocent under this new change, meaning that no reasonable juror could find them guilty of the crime they were previously convicted of. Id. at 12. Hendrix contends that because Jones cannot make the required showing of actual innocence, he does not satisfy the requirements to invoke the saving clause, and the court was correct in dismissing his habeas petition. Id. Hendrix further counters that Jones’s assertion that the application of the wrong substantive law cannot properly test the legality of a prisoner’s detention is incorrect. Id. at 41. Rather, Hendrix asserts, a judicial test focuses on procedure instead of outcome and a judge-made mistake therefore does not constitute a failure to test adequately or effectively. Id. at 41-42. Thus, Hendrix contends that Jones’s interpretation of the statute is inaccurate and inconsistent with the text. Id.
Jones argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation raises many constitutional concerns, and that his own interpretation should be adopted. Brief for Petitioner at 33. First, Jones contends that the court’s interpretation violates the Suspension Clause, which guarantees a prisoner’s access to habeas corpus under normal circumstances. Id. at 34. Jones asserts that, in denying him a chance to invoke the saving clause, the court is depriving him of a meaningful opportunity to show that he was wrongly convicted in violation of the Suspension Clause’s guarantee. Id. at 34-35. Second, Jones asserts that the district court acted without jurisdiction when it sentenced and convicted him because federal courts cannot punish crimes that are not statutorily defined. Id. at 36. Jones maintains that, because he was convicted using a lower mens rea standard than currently defined, he was convicted and sentenced because of non-criminal conduct that is outside of the federal court’s jurisdiction. Id. Further, Jones argues that the Eighth Circuit’s concept of “general criminal jurisdiction” is incorrect because the Supreme Court has rejected it. Id. at 40.
Third, Jones argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation violates the doctrine of separation of powers because, in convicting and sentencing him, the lower courts created a new crime. Id. at 43. Jones asserts that defining crimes is the sole power of Congress and that the lower court infringed upon congressional power by punishing Jones and denying him habeas relief. Id. Fourth, Jones argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation raises Fifth Amendment due process concerns because he was denied a remedy despite the fact that he was convicted of a crime for which the prosecution did not prove a crucial element beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 44. Moreover, Jones asserts that punishment for a non-criminal act automatically justifies § 2255 relief, and therefore the Eighth Circuit erred in denying his petition. Id. Finally, Jones argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation violates the Eighth Amendment and enables cruel and unusual punishment because Jones’s conviction relied on a non-criminal act. Id. at 45. Because there was no wrongdoing, Jones contends, punishment is automatically disproportionate and violates the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 46.
Hendrix counters that Jones’s constitutional arguments are misguided and do not support his interpretation of the statute because Jones’s interpretation of the saving clause does not necessarily avoid any constitutional issues. Brief for Respondent at 44. First, Hendrix asserts that placing restrictions on subsequent habeas petitions does not violate the Suspension Clause. Id. at 44-45. Hendrix further argues that the lower courts did not act without jurisdiction because misinterpretation of a statute by a court does not automatically deprive the court of jurisdiction. Id. at 45. Hendrix emphasizes that even convictions under an unconstitutional statute do not deprive a court of jurisdiction. Id.
Additionally, Hendrix disputes Jones’s separation of power concern and argues that because the courts have the right to interpret statutes and define what they say, a court does not usurp Congress’s power when they misinterpret a statute. Id. at 45-46. Moreover, Hendrix contends that denying saving clause relief does not raise due process concerns because the question at hand involves the scope of post-conviction relief available to prisoners to assert claims of trial error, rather than a question of what was proven at trial. Id. at 46. Hendrix further asserts that the denial of Jones’s habeas petition does not violate the Eighth Amendment because the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee multiple rounds of post-conviction review. Id. at 47. Rather, Hendrix emphasizes, the critical issue is when and under what circumstances a prisoner can collaterally attack his conviction. Id. at 46. Therefore, Hendrix asserts, Jones’s interpretation does not avoid any constitutional concerns and should not be adopted.
SEPARATION OF POWERS
Habeas Scholars, in support of Jones, maintain that Congress intended to include language which makes § 2255(e)’s saving clause applicable after the denial of § 2255 relief. Brief of Amici Curie Habeas Scholars, in Support of Petitioner at 9. Further, the Habeas Scholars assert that Congress granted the courts strong powers to enforce remedies similar to traditional habeas petitions. Id. at 10. Therefore, Habeas Scholars maintain that, in accordance with Congress’s intent and separation of powers, the Court should interpret § 2255 in a manner that strengthens habeas protections. Id. at 14. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. (“NACDL”), also in support of Jones, asserts that detaining Jones for activity that congressional statute no longer criminalizes is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine. Brief of Amici Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. (“NACDL”), in Support of Petitioner at 16. NACDL contends that imprisonment for activity outside of criminal statutes is an overreach of the judiciary’s constitutionally granted authority. Id.
Writers of the Court-Appointed Amicus Brief (“Court-Appointed Writers”), in opposition to Jones, argue that Congress purposely limited the extent to which habeas petitions could be sought. Brief of Amicus Curie Court-Appointed, in Support of Respondent at 13. The Court-Appointed Writers note that a broad interpretation of § 2255(e) is inconsistent with congressional intent prescribed to the statute prior to the adoption of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). Id. at 21. Further, the Court-Appointed Writers posit that Congress intended habeas petitions to only be available when other opportunities for relief are exhausted. Id. at 15. According to the Court-Appointed Writers, Congress intended to emphasize fair process over fair results and any alternative interpretation that frustrates this congressional decision is misguided. Id. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“Legal Foundation”), in support of affirmance, asserts that Congress has attempted to minimize the ability to attack a finalized judgement. Brief of Amicus Curiae Criminal Justice Legal Foundation “(Legal Foundation”), in Support of Respondent at 5-6. The Legal Foundation contends that Congress alone has the power to increase the scope of habeas corpus, and the court should maintain the proper separation of powers through adherence to congressional choices. Id. at 17.
ACCESS TO POST CONVICTION RELIEF
The National Association of Federal Defenders (“Federal Defenders”), in support of Jones, cautions that it would be a miscarriage of justice if the Court rules in a way that denies relief to a prisoner that no party contends is guilty of a crime. Brief of Amicus Curie National Association of Federal Defenders, in Support of Petitioner at 10. The Federal Defenders argue that a court ruling denying Jones’s petition for relief would prevent the release of an innocent man who raised his claim of innocence at all possible times and who has no other options available to overturn his conviction. Id. Habeas Scholars, in support of Jones, warn that a ruling against Jones, a prisoner who has a claim of legal innocence following a clarification of the law, would engender an unconstitutional stripping of post-conviction relief. Brief of Habeas Scholars at 20. Habeas Scholars maintain that without access to an appropriate procedure, legally innocent people may be forced to remain in prison for considerable lengths of time. Id. The Habeas Scholars emphasize that Jones’s case is reflective of a broader systemic issue—the justice system tacitly condoning the imprisonment of defendants who engaged in non-criminal acts. Id. at 12.
The Court-Appointed Writers, in opposition to Jones, contend that Congress meant to increase finality of criminal convictions through the enactment of AEDPA. Brief of Amicus Curie Court-Appointed at 6. The Court-Appointed Writers assert that the complete finality of a judgement is, in some cases, more important than an increased ability to correct errors. Id. at 31. According to the Court-Appointed Writers, while parties may disagree as to the tradeoff between error correction and finality, Congress is best suited to determine the correct balance and has the power to do so. Id. at 47. The Legal Foundation, in support of affirmance, asserts that the finality of a judgment is not meant to be overturned easily. Brief of Legal Foundation at 10. The Legal Foundation maintains that the decisions of a court should only be overturned if the court lacked jurisdiction. Id. The Legal Foundation argues that the fact that a court was right or wrong in its application of the law should not impact whether a judgement is final. Id. The Legal Foundation emphasizes that finality is not only in the best interest of crime victims, but also society, as it brings about the efficient and reliable determination of guilt. Id. at 1-2.
The authors would like to thank Professor John Blume for his guidance and insights into this case.
- Sarah Ethington, US Supreme Court Grants Certiorari for Cases on Habeas Corpus, Federal District Court Jurisdiction, Jurist (May 17, 2022).
- Mike Fox, Supreme Court Takes Clinic Case on Challenges to Convictions, News & Media University of Virginia School of Law (May 17, 2022).
- Marco Poggio, Access to Justice Cases to Watch This Supreme Court Term, Law360 (Sept. 23, 2022).
- Dan Schweitzer, Case Granted Review: Jones v. Hendrix, 21-857, National Association of Attorneys General Supreme Court Report (June 2, 2022).