Tuesday, June 27th, 2023

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court holds that a federal prisoner who has already filed (and exhausted) a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 can’t file another postconviction motion to raise a claim of legal innocence based on an intervening statutory-interpretation-decision of  the Supreme Court.  Section 2255(h) bars second or successive 2255 motions based on non-constitutional claims; and the “saving clause” of § 2255(e) doesn’t authorize a petition for a “writ of habeas corpus,” under § 2241, for claims barred by § 2255(h). Jones v. Hendrix, Sup. Ct.  21-857, __U.S.. __  (June 22, 2023).

Thomas, J.,  delivered the Court’s opinion. Sotomayor and Kagan, JJ., filed a dissenting opinion. Jackson, J.,  filed a dissenting opinion.


In 2000, petitioner Marcus DeAngelo Jones was convicted of two counts “of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 922(g)(1)” and sentenced to 327 months’ imprisonment (a little over 27 years’). Op. at 2. After losing his direct appeal (in 2001), “Jones filed a timely § 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, which resulted in the vacatur of one of his concurrent § 922(g) sentences but no other relief.” Op. at 2. Jones exhausted his first § 2255 motion in 2006. Id.

“Years later, in Rehaif v. United States” the Supreme Court held “that a defendant’s knowledge of the status that disqualifies him from owning a firearm is an element of a § 922(g) conviction,” thereby abrogating the “Eighth Circuit’s contrary precedent” that the district court and the Eighth Circuit “had applied in Jones’ trial and direct appeal.” Op. at 2.

Rehaif gave Jones a colorable claim that he is legally innocent. According to his Supreme Court brief, at the trial (in 2000), Jones testified that he genuinely believed that his previous felony convictions had been expunged when he bought the gun. See Sup. Ct. 21-857, Brief for Petitioner Marcus DeAngelo Jones, filed July 14, 2022, at p.5. But “[t]he original trial court considered such evidence to be legally irrelevant,” instructing the jury that the only relevant knowledge question was whether Jones knew he possessed a gun. Id. at p.6. On his direct appeal — back in 2001 — Jones challenged the sufficiency of the evidence based on his lack of knowledge of a prior felony conviction; the Eighth Circuit rejected the claim, saying “it is well settled in this circuit that the government need only prove defendant’s status as a convicted felon and knowing possession of the firearm.” United States v. Jones, 266 F.3d 804, 810 n.5 (8th Cir. 2001) (“The only argument Jones makes concerning the sufficiency of the evidence is that he did not have knowledge of his prior felony convictions. The government need not prove knowledge, but only the fact of a prior felony conviction.”). Rehaif, however, swept aside the “Eighth Circuit’s contrary precedent.” Op. at 2.  So now, if what Jones has been saying since 2000 is true, he is innocent: § 922(g) doesn’t criminalize his possession of a firearm because he didn’t know he had a felony conviction.

Jones therefore sought to collaterally attack his remaining § 922(g) conviction. See Op. at 2. “But Rehaif’s statutory holding satisfied neither of § 2255(h)’s gateway conditions for a second or successive §2255 motion: It was neither ‘newly discovered evidence,’ § 2255(h)(1), nor ‘a new rule of constitutional law,’ §2255(h)(2).” Op. at 2 (emphasis in Opinion).

“Unable to file a new § 2255 motion in his sentencing court, Jones instead looked to § 2255(e)’s ‘saving clause,’ which provides that a federal prisoner may file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under § 2241 if — and only if — § 2255’s ‘remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.’” Op. at 2-3. Invoking this clause, Jones petitioned the federal district court “where he was imprisoned, for a writ of habeas corpus under § 2241.” Op. at 3.

But the district court dismissed Jones’ habeas petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court appointed amicus curiae to argue in support of the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning. The Solicitor General informed the Court that it would defend the Circuit’s judgment “but not its rationale.” Op. at 3. The Amicus prevailed over Petitioner Jones.

  1. The majority holds that a person who is unable to satisfy § 2255(h)’s requirements (for second or successive 2255 motions)  cannot obtain relief under the “saving clause” of § 2255(e) and file a habeas corpus petition, under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 (in the judicial district of confinement).

The majority opinion holds that  “§ 2255(e)’s saving clause does not permit a prisoner asserting an intervening change in statutory interpretation to circumvent [§ 2255(h)’s] restrictions on second or successive § 2255 motions by filing a § 2241 petition.” Op. at 3.

a. § 2255 is enacted in 1948; § 2255(h) is added in 1996 by AEDPA

The majority noted that before 1948, federal prisoners could collaterally attack their sentences only by a “petition for a writ of habeas corpus” filed “in the judicial district in which they were confined[.]” Op. at 6; id. at 4-6. This resulted “in serious administrative problems,” however.  “[A] federal prisoner’s district of confinement was often far removed from the records of the  sentencing court and other sources of needed evidence.” Op. at 6 (citation omitted). And “the concentration of federal prisoners in a handful of judicial districts … forced those District Courts to process ‘an inordinate number of habeas corpus actions.’” Id.  (citation omitted).

That changed in 1948 when, “[i]n enacting the present Title 28 of the United States Code, Congress largely recodified the federal courts’ pre-existing habeas authority in §§ 2241 and 2243″ but “created § 2255 as a separate remedial vehicle specifically designed for federal prisoners’ collateral attacks on their sentences.” Op. at 5. Section 2255 “rerout[ed]” all federal prisoners’ “collateral attacks on their sentences to the courts that had sentenced them.” Op. at 6. And § 2255(e) “barred federal prisoners ‘authorized to apply for relief by motion pursuant to’ § 2255 from applying ‘for a writ of habeas corpus’ under § 2241.” Op. at 6 (quoting § 2255(e)). But § 2255(e), “known as the saving clause,” also “preserved the habeas remedy in cases where ‘the remedy by [§ 2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of  [a prisoner’s] detention.’” Op. at 6 (brackets in Opinion) (quoting  § 2255(e) (emphasis added).

In 1996, Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act  (AEDPA), amending § 2255 to, among other things, prohibit the filing of second or successive § 2255 motions, unless the  motions relied on either “newly discovered evidence,” § 2255(h)(1), or  “a new rule of constitutional law,” § 2255(h)(2).

b. The majority holds that Petitioner’s inability to satisfy § 2255(h) doesn’t meet § 2255(e)’s “inadequate or ineffective” standard.

Petitioner Marcus Jones argued that § 2255(h)’s bar on second or successive petitions made a 2255 motion an “inadequate or ineffective” vehicle for testing the legality of his continued detention post-Rehaif.  The case thus falls under the saving clause of § 2255(e), Jones argued, and he should be permitted to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus (in the judicial district where he is confined) under § 2241.

But the Supreme Court’s majority disagreed. It construed § 2255(e)’s “inadequate or ineffective” standard very narrowly to mean “impossible or impracticable.” According to the majority, the “[t]raditional” understanding of the saving clause was limited to “unusual circumstances in which it is impossible or impracticable for a prisoner to seek relief from the sentencing court.” Op. at 6 (emphasis added). “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.” Id.  The saving clause might also apply if it wasn’t practicable for the prisoner to be transported to the trial court. And it allows prisoners to challenge  the conditions of detention, rather than the legality of the sentence. Op. at 7-8.

The majority reasoned that because AEPDA carves out only two exceptions to the bar on  successive motions — for newly discovered evidence and previously unavailable constitutional claims — the “straightforward negative inference” of 2255(h) is that “a second or successive collateral attack on a federal sentence is not authorized unless one of those two conditions is satisfied.” Op. at 10. To hold otherwise, the majority says, would be an “end-run around AEDPA” and mean that prisoners with “nonconstitutional claims,” would be able to pursue habeas petitions free from AEDPA’s procedural hurdles and thus have a “superior remedy” to those with constitutional ones. Op. at 10-12.

The majority rejected Jones’ “primary constitutional argument” —  that foreclosing his Rehaif claim would violate the  Suspension Clause of the Constitution, U.S. Const., Art. I,  §9, cl. 2. Op. at 15-19. And it gave only brief attention to Jones’ other constitutional arguments. Op. at 19-20.

Thus, according to the majority: “The inability of a prisoner with a statutory claim to satisfy those conditions [of § 2255(h)] does not mean that he can bring his claim in a habeas petition under the saving clause. It means that he cannot bring it at all. Congress has chosen finality over error correction in his case.” Op. at 12 (emphasis added).

The dissents

Justices Sotomayor and Kagan filed a 2-page dissent.  Justice Jackson filed a 39-page dissent.

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