Release Date: June 22, 2023
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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In a 6-3 decision announced today, the U. S. Supreme Court clarified the limits on federal challenges to criminal convictions.

At issue in the case of Jones v. Hendrix was how the Court interprets a 1996 Act of Congress adopted to strictly limit federal court review of post-conviction claims of state and federal criminals. That law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), restricted the federal courts from considering more than one post-conviction petition from almost all convicted criminals. The exceptions are that the defendant is demonstrably innocent based on newly discovered evidence, or there is a constitutional change in the law which must be applied retroactively. The defendant in this case argued that Congress intended that the courts be allowed to interpret AEDPA to allow additional exceptions.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) had joined the case to encourage a decision rejecting the claim that Congress left a huge loophole in its crackdown on successive petitions.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas stated that the clause invoked by the petitioner “does not authorize such an end-run around AEPDA.”

The case involves the November 2000 federal court conviction of Marcus Deangelo Jones of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Jones had eleven prior felony convictions and had served prison sentences for at least five of them. In August of 1999, Jones lied about his prior felonies in order to purchase a handgun from a Missouri pawnshop. Later that day he admitted having the gun to an undercover officer during a drug deal. In October, Jones was arrested after firing the gun during a shootout. He was charged with two counts of illegal firearm possession and lying to acquire a firearm. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Jones was separately convicted of drug trafficking and ordered to serve the sentence for that crime concurrently with the firearm sentence.

After his conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal, Jones filed at least 35 unsuccessful challenges over the next 17 years claiming that his rights had been violated. In 2019, the Supreme Court, in Rehaif v. United States, announced that in cases in which a felon is charged with violating the Armed Career Criminal Act, the government must not only prove that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm, but also that he knew that his criminal record or immigration status made it illegal for him to possess a firearm. This added a new right that Jones could claim invalidated his conviction, so he filed another petition. Jones argues that he believed that his criminal record had been expunged when he purchased the gun in 1999. This contradicts the statements he made to the undercover agent prior to his arrest.

In 1948, Congress created a new procedure for federal prisoners seeking to attack their convictions or sentences outside of the appeal process. The then-new procedure, called a "motion to vacate," replaced the traditional habeas corpus procedure in almost all cases. But Congress left a safety valve saying that federal prisoners could use the old habeas corpus procedure in cases where the new procedure was "inadequate or ineffective."

In 1996, in response to flagrant abuses, Congress cracked down hard on prisoners filing repeated petitions. It limited both habeas corpus petitions by state prisoners and motions to vacate by federal prisoners to a single petition in all but the rare cases of newly discovered evidence clearly demonstrating innocence or new, retroactive constitutional rules.

Jones does not qualify for either exception. His latest claim was that in the case of federal prisoners the AEDPA reform does not limit prisoners to a single petition for claims such as his but merely require that the prisoner use the old pre-1948 procedure instead. He further claimed that the reform might violate the Constitution’s Suspension Clause if it cut off these claims altogether, despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of a similar argument in Felker v. Turpin (won by CJLF) in 1996, just months after AEDPA was enacted. Although both the federal district court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the claim, in May 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Jones’s appeal.

The Solicitor General of the United States, although defending the conviction on other grounds, filed briefs agreeing with Jones on the main point. Also filing argument in support of Jones was a group calling itself Habeas Scholars (made up of law professors) and two defense lawyer associations. Because the government had effectively switched sides, the court appointed Washington lawyer Morgan Ratner to argue the case defending the Court of Appeals’ decision.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argued that the AEDPA was intended to cut off all successive petitions other than those in its listed exceptions, not merely to change to a different procedure in a different court. This was understood by everyone in the debates leading up to its passage. Further, and of broader importance, there is no doubt that the reform is constitutional. The Suspension Clause was originally understood to protect the writ of habeas corpus as it existed at common law. At the time, the writ was not available to attack a criminal judgment entered by a court of competent jurisdiction. Today the Court squarely endorsed this understanding of the Suspension Clause and the original scope of the writ of habeas corpus.

"Congress clearly intended to put a stop to repeated petitions, with no exceptions other than those it wrote into the law. Today’s decision leaves no doubt that Congress had the constitutional authority to pass this reform and the time has come to fully enforce it," said Scheidegger. The majority opinion utilized argument and research introduced in the CJLF brief.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345