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June 22, 2023

By expected 6-3 vote, SCOTUS in Jones v. Hendrix limits reach of habeas corpus statute, § 2241, for federal prisoners

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a significant ruling in Jones v. Hendrix, No. 21-857 (S. Ct. June 22, 2023)(available here), limiting the reach of the general habeas corpus statute, § 2241, for federal prisoners.  Justice Thomas authored the opinion for the Court, which starts this way:

This case concerns the interplay between two statutes: 28 U.S.C. § 2241, the general habeas corpus statute, and § 2255, which provides an alternative postconviction remedy for federal prisoners. Since 1948, Congress has provided that a federal prisoner who collaterally attacks his sentence ordinarily must proceed by a motion in the sentencing court under § 2255, rather than by a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under § 2241. To that end, § 2255(e) bars a federal prisoner from proceeding under § 2241 “unless . . . the [§ 2255] remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.”

Separately, since the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), second or successive § 2255 motions are barred unless they rely on either “newly discovered evidence,” § 2255(h)(1), or “a new rule of constitutional law,” § 2255(h)(2). A federal prisoner may not, therefore, file a second or successive § 2255 motion based solely on a more favorable interpretation of statutory law adopted after his conviction became final and his initial § 2255 motion was resolved.

The question presented is whether that limitation on second or successive motions makes § 2255 “inadequate or ineffective” such that the prisoner may proceed with his statutory claim under § 2241. We hold that it does not.

Justices Sotomayor and Kagan dissent with a short opinion, and Justice Jackson dissents with an opinion that is nearly twice as long as the opinion of the Court. It starts this way:

Today, the Court holds that an incarcerated individual who has already filed one postconviction petition cannot file another one to assert a previously unavailable claim of statutory innocence.  The majority says that result follows from a “straightforward” reading of 28 U.S.C. § 2255.  Ante, at 10, 12.  But the majority reaches this preclusion decision by “negative inference.” Ante, at 10.  And it is far from obvious that § 2255(h)’s bar on filing second or successive postconviction petitions (with certain notable exceptions) prevents a prisoner who has previously sought postconviction relief from bringing a newly available legal innocence claim in court.  See Part II, infra.

In any event, putting aside its questionable interpretation of § 2255(h), the majority is also wrong to interpret § 2255(e) — known as the saving clause — as if Congress designed that provision to filter potential habeas claims through the narrowest of apertures, saving essentially only those that a court literally would be unable to consider due to something akin to a natural calamity.  See Part I, infra.  This stingy characterization does not reflect a primary aim of § 2255(e), which was to “save” any claim that was available prior to § 2255(h)’s enactment where Congress has not expressed a clear intent to foreclose it.  Jones’s legal innocence claim fits that mold.

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.  But forever slamming the courtroom doors to a possibly innocent person who has never had a meaningful opportunity to get a new and retroactively applicable claim for release reviewed on the merits raises serious constitutional concerns.

Thus, in my view, all roads lead to an interpretation of § 2255 that is diametrically opposed to the one that the majority announces.  Whether one gets there by virtue of a proper reading of § 2255(e) or an informed understanding of § 2255(h), or by affording due respect to the core constitutional interests at stake, Jones’s successive petition alleging legal innocence should have been considered on the merits.  Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

I am going to need to read these opinions closely before having a full take. But given all the recent SCOTUS substantive rulings limiting the reach of federal criminal statutes, there is a bit of irony (or perhaps purpose?) in the Court's decision in Jones restricting a procedural means for federal defendants to press claims based on on these substantive rulings.

June 22, 2023 at 10:36 AM | Permalink


Praise be to God. So just because a plain reading of the text may lead to an unfair result doesn't mean that that reading is wrong. The answer lies with Congress, which should amend 2255(h) to include actual innocence claims based on statutory narrowing.

Posted by: Da Man | Jun 22, 2023 11:39:15 AM

And shame on Doug for accusing the Court of limiting the reach of 2241. Instead, the Court pushed back against the improper expansion of 2241 by lower courts to reach a result they perceived as just. A more proper title, one that might be found over at Crime and Consequences, would be "Supreme Court reinforces separation of powers by enforcing AEDPA as written."

Posted by: Da Man | Jun 22, 2023 11:42:07 AM

The spectacle of someone in prison for something determined not to be an offense should be enough to get the DOJ to look at it. Obviously, you have to block access to courts as of right because you'll get a lot of chaff.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 22, 2023 11:51:18 AM

Da Man, I am not "accusing" the Court of anything. It is 100% accurate to say that Jones limits the reach of 2241. You and others might think that interpretation is quite sound. But it remains accurate to say that the ruling limits the reach of the § 2241 phrase allowing actions under the provision if the § 2255 "remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.”

federalist, though it is probably foolish for me to seek any clarity in your SD "rule of federalist," but your comment has me wondering if you feel people who are indisputably statutorily innocent and now in federal prison (and now left with one less means to seek a path out of prison) have a legal right to attack federal guards?

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 22, 2023 12:08:07 PM

This ruling reminds me of the death penalty cases with the present Court. While one or two of the six conservative justices might go wobbly here or there, when it gets to the basics, they're still pretty sound. The idea that in a system already overstuffed with manufactured procedural challenges that go on for years and years and years, we need yet more of them, is nuts.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 22, 2023 12:33:55 PM

I don't think they have a legal right to attack federal guards, but the spectacle of innocent people serving time is jarring, to say the least. But let's say a federal guard uses physical force on one of these guys that would not be appropriate against a free person, I do think that the prisoner would have the SD rights of a free person.

A judgment is more powerful than any law, constitutional or not.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 22, 2023 12:35:18 PM

I am now sure that there is a "real" actual innocence claim here. The challenge is based on Reheif which established that knowledge of your status is one of the elements of an unlawful possession of a weapons charge. For mnst felon in possession cases, the evidence is readily available to sufficiently show that the defendant knew that he was convicted of X. But at the time of the original trial, that was not something that needed to be proved and that was not a finding that the jury had to make.

In short, this is not a claim of actual innocence. It's a claim of legal error which, as the Supreme Court reads 2241 and 2255, needed to be made on direct appeal (or maybe, and I am not a federal practitioner, through a motion to recall the mandate if it was "erroneously" denied on direct appeal).

Given that appellate courts are always refining what instructions should say and what needs to be introduced into evidence to support a conviction, a reading of 2255 which prevents these rulings from applying retroactively to every case does not seem to be likely to impact people who are truly innocent.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 22, 2023 1:34:46 PM

"Not sure." Not "now sure."

Posted by: tmm | Jun 22, 2023 1:36:28 PM

tmm, of course, my comment was only in response to Doug's hypo--demonstrable innocence, not manufactured claims

Posted by: federalist | Jun 22, 2023 2:12:11 PM

Responding to Doug and TMM, there is of course an error by hindsight and that error would have to be corrected on direct appeal. But it wasn't until 1974 that the SCOTUS first suggested that the error was also corrigible (cognizable) on a first 2255, although it was not yet settled at the Supreme Court level that statutory narrowings (like Rehaif or Skilling or Taylor) automatically applied retroactively on collateral attack. That recognition came in Bousley in 1998. But none of that means that the great Writ (now codified in 2241) was always available for such claims. To the contrary, until the middle of the 20th century, habeas was limited purely to jurisdictional challenges. Challenges to the conviction were not cognizable. So it hardly would have offended the drafters of the Constitution (or the first Congress that wrote the first habeas statute) to leave in place a conviction that was correct under the law as it existed at the time of trial but became incorrect years later -- long after the conviction was final on direct review. And that puts the lie to the SG's nonsensical argument that the savings clause must have preserved this very sort of claim: how could that clause preserve a claim of actual innocence that was unknown and foreign to the Congress that created 2241 and 2255(e)?

Federalist:: does it make me uncomfortable that a prisoner must remain in jail despite a SCOTUS ruling saying the statute doesn't cover his conduct? Maybe. (But no more than it bothers me (and it doesn't) that AEDPA requires federal courts reviewing state criminal judgments to leave them in place unless they violate clearly established constitutional rights, determined as of the time of trial.) Anyway, it's Congress's job to fix it. Or it's the executive's job to grant clemency or pardons. But it surely is not the judiciary's job to engage in creative statutory construction to achieve a result it thinks would be more just.

[Steps off soap box ...]

Posted by: Da Man | Jun 22, 2023 3:49:49 PM

And Doug, my prediction was correct. Kent has a much more accurate description of today's decision:

"Major Victory for Finality of Judgments"


Posted by: Da Man | Jun 22, 2023 4:05:53 PM

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