Supreme Court Takes Clinic Case on Challenges to Convictions

U.S. Supreme Court

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May 17, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a case filed by the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law that could have broad implications for defendants challenging their convictions for crimes that are no longer considered crimes.

The dispute in the case, Jones v. Hendrix, began when Marcus DeAngelo Jones filed a motion to vacate his sentence in a 2000 conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. A federal court vacated one of Jones’ two convictions as being duplicative, but he was resentenced.

Jones later filed a habeas corpus petition, which would give him a second opportunity to prove that his incarceration was illegal. In his petition, he cited new Supreme Court precedent in the 2019 case Rehaif v. U.S., which held that in felon-in-possession cases, the prosecution must prove both that the accused knew they possessed a gun and they knew they were prohibited from doing so.

In denying Jones’ habeas petition, the District Court and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Jones could have made his own Rehaif-type argument to challenge the legality of his detention in earlier appeals and therefore — without newly discovered evidence — he was not entitled to habeas relief simply because of Rehaif’s later change to substantive law.

Jones, represented by the clinic and attorney Jeremy B. Lowrey, argue in a cert petition that habeas relief should be available after the Supreme Court later makes clear in a retroactively applicable decision, like Rehaif, that the circuit precedent was wrong and that the defendant is legally innocent of the crime.

Professor Daniel Ortiz, the clinic’s director, said the clinic was drawn to the case by the deep conflict among appeals courts about the availability of habeas relief in such situations and “the obvious injustice” of not allowing a challenge to a conviction when the Supreme Court later declares what a defendant was convicted of was not a crime.

“The case would let criminal defendants who are incarcerated for conduct the lower courts at one time wrongly thought a statute made a crime — but the Supreme Court later held did not — to challenge their convictions,” he said, “even when defendants did not make that claim during the one postconviction challenge the law permits them.”

Typically, a federal inmate has one year to challenge a conviction or sentence through a Section 2255 motion to vacate. Under current law, an inmate may only file a habeas petition if he shows that “the remedy by [Section 2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention,” the Eighth Circuit noted in its decision.

“The Sec. 2255 remedy cannot ‘test’ the legality of a detention at all, let alone adequately and effectively, if the court applies the wrong substantive law,” the clinic’s cert petition argues. “That is like a schoolteacher ‘testing’ a student’s understanding with a good test but a wrong answer key.”

Eight circuits have supported habeas relief when a change in substantive law is retroactively applicable, and three have opposed it. The conflict is so pressing that many individual circuit judges have called for the court’s speedy intervention, the petition notes.

“Confusion runs so deep, in fact, that the government has changed its own position twice,” the cert states.

The yearlong clinic introduces third-year students to all aspects of current U.S. Supreme Court practice through live cases. Jones is the clinic’s 18th case before the court since the course’s inception in 2006.

The case is expected to be argued in the late fall or winter.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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