Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas led a 6-3 majority Thursday in ruling that a man’s legal innocence is not a basis for allowing him to petition for habeas corpus relief.
The legal community reacted to the ruling in Jones v. Hendrix with disdain, with some calling the ruling “an outright tragedy.”
Attorney Matthew Segal tweeted a summary of the ruling’s effect: “To be clear: this opinion means that when *the courts* misinterpret a statute and cause someone to be wrongly convicted or sentenced, that person is out of luck when the courts later realize their mistake.”
The underlying facts involve interplay among multiple federal statutes and a Supreme Court ruling that created new rules for interpretation.
Marcus DeAngelo Jones was convicted in 2000 of possessing a firearm as a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). After Jones was convicted, he appealed and lost several times. An unrelated ruling by the Supreme Court in 2019 in Rehaif v. United States, however, changed the interpretation of § 922(g)(1) such that Jones would no longer be guilty under the law.
Jones challenged his conviction with a claim of “legal innocence” — a defense based on an erroneous interpretation of a criminal law — as opposed to “factual innocence,” or a defense based on an error in determining what a defendant did.
Legal innocence claims are relatively rare. Indeed, during oral arguments in the case, when Justice Samuel Alito raised concerns about inmates of all manner revisiting their convictions with legal innocence claims under § 922(g)(1), Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin told Alito that Jones’ case would constitute “probably a category of one.”
Jones’ legal innocence claim led to a seemingly illogical outcome related to timing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit rejected Jones’ habeas corpus petition on the basis that Jones should have raised his claim at an earlier proceeding. However, at the time of the earlier proceeding, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled in the 2019 case. As a result, Jones would not yet have had a valid claim of legal innocence at the phase the 8th Circuit demanded.
On appeal to the justices, Jones argued that even if the federal habeas corpus statute doesn’t allow him to bring a legal innocence claim, a different federal post-conviction relief statute creates a kind of safety valve which does. As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson explained in her dissent: “Where a federal prisoner could have brought a particular habeas claim prior to 1948, but could not bring such a claim in a §2255 petition after that date, the saving clause kicks in to permit that individual to resort to habeas to raise that claim.”
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, however, disagreed, and sided with the 8th Circuit’s decision to reject Jones’ petition. Justice Thomas chose to lay any resulting injustice squarely at the feet of Congress.
“Here, as is often is the case, the best interpretation is the straightforward one,” Thomas began, as he explained that neither federal statute provides a viable avenue for Jones’ claim.
“Congress has chosen finality over error correction in [Jones’] case,” summarized Thomas with respect to the claim of legal innocence.
Thomas also made short work of any suggestion that Jones’ incarceration raises constitutional issues. The justice dismissed Jones’ “scattershot” arguments that contend the case “raises serious constitutional questions” out of hand.
The beleaguered justice ended with a refusal to view the result in Jones’ case as something that Congress ought to have prevented, remarking that “there is nothing fundamentally surprising about Congress declining to make such errors remediable in a second or successive collateral attack.”
In a brief joint dissenting opinion, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote that the “disturbing results” caused by the Court’s ruling should have been prevented by a proper use of §2255, the statute Jones had argued was a “safety valve.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, however, railed against the majority’s ruling in a detailed — and sometimes sarcastic — 40-page dissent.
Jackson denounced Thomas’ erroneous interpretation of §2255 as “stingy” and said the majority decision amounts to “forever slamming the courtroom doors to a possibly innocent person.”
I am also deeply troubled by the constitutional implications of the nothing-to-see-here approach that the majority takes with respect to the incarceration of potential legal innocents. See Part III, infra. Apparently, legally innocent or not, Jones must just carry on in prison regardless, since (as the majority reads §2255) no path exists for him to ask a federal judge to consider his innocence assertion.
Jackson also rubbished Thomas’ suggestion that Congress tacitly intended to deny relief in cases like Jones’:
To put it bluntly: Congress knows how to speak clearly when it wants to disrupt the continuity of claims that are available to prisoners before and after it enacts legislation that addresses postconviction review procedures. And rather than providing any such clear statement as to how an intervening claim of statutory innocence should be treated vis-à-vis §2255(h)’s second or successive bar, Congress was conspicuously silent.
Jackson also threw several of Thomas’ chosen words right back at him. Despite Thomas’ many references to the majority’s “textual” approach to statutory interpretation, Jackson said:
First and foremost, it is entirely atextual. The majority cites exactly zero dictionary definitions of the terms “inadequate” or “ineffective.”
Responding to Thomas’ evaluation of Jones’ arguments as “scattershot,” Jackson said that is actually the majority that is relying on a “scattershot of lower court cases.”
Jackson also delivered a sardonic take on Thomas’ contention that the statute’s lack of reference to legal innocence claims indicates that Congress did not intend to allow petitions based on those claims.
“[S]poiler alert: they were inadvertently omitted,” wrote Jackson.
Jackson ended her opinion by calling out Thomas for “downplay[ing] the stakes in this case.”
“Not once does its opinion make direct mention of the fact that the claim the majority says §2255(h) silently precludes is one that implicates core values because it involves legal innocence,” Jackson wrote, before reminding the majority that “statutory claims that suggest a person’s innocence are different in kind from more run-of-the-mill statutory claims.”
Jackson also took aim directly at Thomas for reaching far into the past to find support for his tenets of statutory interpretation:
Looking back to the time of the founding to determine whether the clear-statement rule applies to our interpretation of a statute passed in 1996 also makes no sense.
Similarly, Jackson said that portions of Thomas’ analysis “rests on nothing—and certainly nothing that actually derives from Congress’ intent.”
Taking issue with Thomas’ claim that the Court was merely carrying out the will of Congress, Jackson returned the volley to the majority — again throwing Thomas’ word back at him.
So, the majority’s “straightforward” determination that this statute does preclude a prisoner in Jones’ position from filing a successive petition to assert a legal innocence claim… appears to stem from the Court’s own views concerning finality, not the will of Congress.
Jackson also levied a scathing charge against the current Court, saying that it is responsible for a “systematic neutering” of safeguards of the criminal justice system. Per the dissent:
Ultimately, of course, this all begs the question of how (and whether) Congress will respond to the Court’s systematic neutering of the balanced postconviction processes that the Legislature has established.
Jackson ended by calling Congress to task:
It seems to me that today’s opinion — which unjustifiably closes off all avenues for certain defendants to secure meaningful consideration of their innocence claims — creates an opening for Congress to step in and fix this problem.
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Jackson slams Thomas SCOTUS ruling in legal innocence case
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