SCOTUS rules that some legally innocent people can't even challenge their imprisonment
The 6-3 decision did, however, highlight that Thomas's indifference to people in prison will now face the spotlight of Jackson's expertise.
The Supreme Court’s reactionary majority was on full display Thursday, in a particularly cruel decision that bars Marcus Deangelo Jones from even being able to get a court to hear his claim that, under the Supreme Court’s own precedent, he is legally innocent of the charges that led to his conviction that has him in prison.
The 6-3 decision by Justice Clarence Thomas means that no one in federal prison whose conviction has been finalized on appeal and who has already brought a post-conviction petition for relief can challenge their legal innocence due to a changed interpretation of statutory law — either under the post-conviction law or by seeking a writ of habeas corpus.
The 25-page opinion featured Thomas’s regular indifference — if not animosity — toward people convicted of crimes and sent to prison (or, in other cases, sentenced to death).
Referring to lower-court rulings that allowed people in prison to challenge their sentences when later statutory rulings suggested they were legally innocent as being “a workaround for those prisoners,” Thomas and the majority rejected all of Jones’s arguments on Thursday — leaving him with no apparent way to even get his claim heard by a court.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson made clear in a 39-page dissent, however, that she will be standing up to what is, in practice, a bullying distortion of reality that Thomas has exacerbated, if not created, in the criminal law over his 30-plus years on the court.
“I am … deeply troubled,” Jackson wrote, “by the constitutional implications of the nothing-to-see-here approach that the majority takes with respect to the incarceration of potential legal innocents.”
Her dissent didn’t change the outcome on Thursday, but it could make a difference to lawyers examining the law, to courts interpreting it, and — as she explicitly directed it — to lawmakers in Congress, who can “step in and fix this problem.”
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Jones’s claim is relatively straightforward. He was convicted in federal court in 2000 on three gun-related charges, including two charges of “unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon,” leading to a nearly 30-year prison sentence. Nearly 20 years later, in 2019, the Supreme Court “held that a defendant’s knowledge of the status that disqualifies him from owning a firearm is an element of a [unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon] conviction,” as Thomas explained it. This 2019 Supreme Court decision was “contrary” to the precedent within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, where Jones was tried and convicted. The “knowledge” element was not required to be proven for Jones’s conviction.
In short, that “crime” for which Jones was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2000 is no longer, according to the Supreme Court, a crime as of 2019.
Understandably, Jones wanted to ask a court to address this.
If Jones had merely been charged, he could challenge this at trial. If his conviction was still on direct appeal, he could challenge it. He also could challenge it in an initial post-conviction proceeding.
But, Thomas and the majority ruled on Thursday, because Jones previously brought a so-called collateral attack on his conviction, he couldn’t do so again — in a successive petition — even if the Supreme Court decision creating this new line of “attack” didn’t exist when he brought his first post-conviction petition (authorized by a 1948 law passed to allow, all sides agree, the same claims as would have been available before the law’s passage under the writ of habeas corpus).
Thomas and the majority, however, drew a “straightforward negative inference” from the limits Congress put on certain types of post-conviction relief in 1996’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) to conclude Congress couldn’t have possibly imagined this type of claim. Because AEDPA set forth a process for considering successive petitions for relief due to “newly discovered evidence” or following “a new rule of constitutional law,” Thomas reasoned for the court that, by negative inference, successive petitions aren’t allowed for a new rule of statutory law.
Nor, the majority ruled, would the claim be allowed under habeas corpus by way of a “savings clause” in the post-conviction law that says habeas remains available where the law “is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” The court interpreted that provision as basically only existing for situations where the actual court where the petition would be filed is unavailable. As Thomas put it, “The clearest such circumstance is the sentencing court’s dissolution; a motion in a court that no longer exists is obviously ‘inadequate or ineffective’ for any purpose.”
Relying on that “negative inference” and the narrow interpretation of the savings clause, Thomas concluded of Jones’s request to have a court review his conviction in light of the 2019 decision, “[H]e cannot bring it at all. Congress has chosen finality over error correction in his case.”
There’s some history thrown in — it’s Thomas, after all — but those are the key aspects of the decision.
The Justice Department, for its part, argued that such claims are not categorically barred — but that Jones’s specific claim fails because, as DOJ put in its brief, “the record here establishes that petitioner knew that he was a felon at the time he possessed a firearm.“
Again, though, the question on which Jones and DOJ lost today was whether such claims can ever be brought in successive petitions or in habeas.
And the court said no.
The importance of having Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court has been clear throughout her first year on the court — from orders to arguments to, now, opinions.
Nowhere has the importance of her professional history, however, been more clearly on display than in Thursday’s dissent in Jones v. Hendrix. Jackson — the first former public defender on the Supreme Court and a former commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission — was as comfortable as a justice could ever be in laying out a solo dissent, particularly one in their first year.
Jackson wrote that Thomas — and, hence, the court — was wrong, in her view, on virtually all grounds.
As to the savings clause, which could have allowed Jones to seek relief under habeas — as DOJ argued should be available generally, although not to Jones on these facts — Jackson began her discussion of the majority’s extremely narrow interpretation of the clause by noting that it is “a theory that I do not find even remotely persuasive.”
She wrote, in part, that she saw “no reason why the only circumstance in which” the post-conviction statute’s provisions “qualify as inadequate or ineffective for saving clause purposes is when it is impossible or impractical for a prisoner to file a [post-conviction] motion.”
For their part, Justices Sonia Sotomayor (who has done her fair share of calling out conservative criminal justice decisions, particularly when it comes to qualified immunity) and Elena Kagan co-authored their own two-page dissent, highlighting the “disturbing results” that Jackson explains will follow from majority’s decision but not joining her dissent. Instead, the pair would have left it at this — holding that the savings clause of the post-conviction statute “kicks in” in situations like this, allowing eligible individuals to seek habeas relief.
But Jackson went on. In her view, she wrote, the post-conviction law itself could — and should — be read not to bar successive claims for legal innocence based on a changed statutory interpretation.
Detailing the congressional history of the AEDPA changes — most notably, the fact that the new evidence and new constitutional rule provisions relied on by the majority to cut off access to successive petitions based on a new statutory rule apparently were “modeled” after “analogous second-or-successive petition limitations for state prisoners.” There’s no statutory claim allowed there, either, but that is because, Jackson explained, “there is no such thing as a statutory innocence claim in the realm of federal collateral relief for state prisoners.” Jackson went on to cite several sources asserting that the repetition of the provision in the federal section with no additional part addressing statutory claims was an “oversight.” In short, she concluded, “To me, this contextual revelation rocks the foundation of the majority’s negative inference.”
Jackson went on to address the “practical consequences” of the majority’s decision: The U.S. Supreme Court could make a statutory decision that a law “covers a narrower scope of criminal conduct” than before the decision, a decision that applies retroactively. While it could be challenged by anyone still yet to file a post-conviction petition — so, more likely, recently convicted people — Thursday’s ruling would bar anyone who previously brought a post-conviction petition — so, more likely, people who have already served significant time in prison — from doing so. The decision could lead to “stunningly disparate results” even for co-defendants if one happened to have brought a post-conviction challenge before the statutory change and one had not.
The ruling, Jackson concluded, “places prisoners in an untenable catch-22” due to the statute of limitations that AEDPA sets for bringing a first post-conviction conviction within one year. Under the majority’s ruling, a person in prison would either have to hold off on bringing an initial petition at all for hopes that a later U.S. Supreme Court decision might lead to a statutory innocence claim or bring the claims they have available within one year of their conviction being final and risk not being able to bring a successive petition at all even if the U.S. Supreme Court later rules that the conduct for which they were convicted is no longer a crime.
If all of that weren’t enough, Jackson continued, “the most ‘straightforward’ way” of addressing whether Jones could bring his claim — poking at Thomas’s “straightforward negative inference” language — would be to apply the “clear-statement rule” to the case.
This rule is simply that, before ruling that Congress has chosen to bar “a class of habeas petitioners,” the court needs to find a “clear indication” that was Congress’s intent. Obviously a “negative inference” isn’t “clear intent.” (No bother. Thomas simply asserted, in the closing of the majority opinion, that the clear-statement rule doesn’t apply here. A “dramatic break,” Jackson wrote, later adding of one argument from Thomas that the clear-statement rule applies to AEDPA’s statute of limitations but not its successive petitions section, “This is nonsense.”)
Thirty-five pages in, Jackson was not done. She moved on to the canon of constitutional avoidance — asserting that either of the interpretations she favored would avoid the court having to face constitutional questions.
Jackson explained why she believed the majority’s interpretation of the law could raise questions under the Eighth Amendment — “There is a nonfrivolous argument that the Constitution’s protection against ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibits the incarceration of innocent individuals.” — and the Suspension Clause — in which Jackson took issue with Thomas’s “suggestion that the Suspension Clause protects only the scope of [habeas corpus] as it existed in the founding era.”
Finally, Jackson went outside of the case to critique what she called “a recent series of troubling AEDPA interpretations“ from the court, limiting review “with imagined artificial barriers, arbitrary dead ends, and traps for the unwary.”
Calling out the conservative majority, Jackson wrote:
It is quite clear that the Court’s rulings in this area of the law reflect a general ethos that convicted prisoners should not be permitted to file [postconviction] motions or obtain postconviction relief at all. But what matters is what Congress wants with respect to the operation of the statutory provisions it enacts.
For now, though, Jackson’s view lost the day. And Jones lost his case.
But Jackson left the country with a full-throated counterargument that engaged with Thomas on all fronts — text, history, practice, and consequences — and opened up the possibility of change in the future.
And, lest she doubt that, Jackson only needs to look to Thomas — whose years of solo dissents have regularly turned themselves into majority opinions in recent years.
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