The Not So Saving Clause: Court Tightens Relief Available for Second Habeas Petitions

It would be an understatement to say that the saving clause found in § 2255(e) has been heavily litigated. The Sixth Circuit continued that trend in Wright v. Spaulding…with a flourish.

In the pre-Johnson era, William Wright pleaded guilty to being an armed career criminal and received the mandatory minimum fifteen-year sentence. Wright did not dispute his status as an armed career criminal during his sentencing, and he did not pursue an appeal. After the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Johnson, however, Wright filed a § 2255 motion seeking a re-sentencing. The Maryland District Court denied his petition, however.

A year later, after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Mathis, Wright again filed a § 2255 motion and argued that the Court should re-sentence him because one of his prior convictions did not qualify as an ACCA predicate. Since he had previously filed for relief before the district court that sentenced him, Wright filed his second petition in the Northern District of Ohio – the district in which he was imprisoned. He was again unsuccessful, however.

Mincing few words about the current scope of habeas law, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of Wright’s second habeas motion. Judge Thapar, who wrote for the majority and also authored a separate concurring opinion, criticized the current extension of habeas law, which, in the Court's opinion, had progressed “far beyond the limits set by Congress.” Summarizing the state of habeas law since 1948 and the application of the “saving clause” found in § 2255(e), the Court held that federal prisoners must demonstrate they had no “prior reasonable opportunity” to bring their claims in a previous habeas motion in order to bring a claim of actual innocence in a § 2241 petition.

Turning to the merits of Wright’s second motion, the Court held that he failed to demonstrate he had no “prior reasonable opportunity” to bring his ACCA argument in his prior motion. Wright failed to do so, the Court noted, because while Mathis may have clarified the categorical approach and bolstered his ACCA predicate argument, it did not create the categorical approach, and he could have raised that argument during sentencing, on direct appeal, or in his previous habeas motion. The saving clause was thus of no avail to him.

No comments: