Federal Court Cannot Review Claims of Legal Innocence, Supreme Court Rules


The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a person in federal prison for conduct that is no longer a crime cannot ask a federal court to review their case if they challenged their conviction earlier.

The 6-3 decision by Justice Clarence Thomas bars Marcus Jones from asking a federal court to remedy the injustice of keeping him in prison even after the Supreme Court in another case invalidated convictions like his.

“This position is stunning in a country where liberty is a constitutional guarantee and the courts are supposed to be dispensing justice,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in a dissenting opinion.

In 2000, Mr. Jones was convicted on three federal gun-related charges, including two counts of “unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon,” and was sentenced to nearly 30 years in prison.

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.  That element was not required to be proven in Mr. Jones’s case, which means his conviction is no longer valid.

Yesterday’s decision holds that Mr. Jones cannot request federal court review of his invalid conviction because he previously filed a postconviction petition challenging his conviction.

In a 39-page dissent, Justice Jackson dissected the majority’s reasoning and explained why its extremely limited interpretation of the saving clause is wrong.

“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,” she wrote, adding that Mr. Jones “must just carry on in prison” regardless of his legal innocence because the majority decision holds he cannot ask a federal judge to consider his innocence claim.

“[F]orever 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,” she wrote.

In a separate dissent, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan shared Justice Jackson’s concern about the “disturbing results” of the decision.

A prisoner who is actually innocent, imprisoned for conduct that Congress did not criminalize, is forever barred … from raising that claim, merely because he previously sought postconviction relief. It does not matter that an intervening decision of this Court confirms his innocence. By challenging his conviction once before, he forfeited his freedom.

Mr. Jones’s case presents precisely the kind of situation the saving clause was designed to address, they wrote.