Volume 57

One Strike, You're Out: The Post-Hueso State of Habeas Corpus Petitions Under the Savings Clause

by Ashley Alexander

The rights of federal prisoners to challenge their sentences and detentions as unlawful are defined and limited by common law and statute. At common law, federal prisoners could only challenge their detentions by applying for a writ of habeas corpus. Over time, however, Congress sought to replace this common law right to habeas corpus relief with a statutory right under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. But courts have struggled to define the scope and limit of federal prisoners’ rights under § 2255. And courts have vigorously disagreed about how federal prisoners’ statutory rights under § 2255 interact with the original common law right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Acknowledging that the landscape is complex and that there are many divisions between circuits, this contribution discusses one narrow issue that has recently caused a circuit split: whether a new rule of statutory interpretation by a circuit court can trigger § 2255(e)’s savings clause.

Part I will briefly canvas federal prisoners’ rights to challenge their detentions as those rights evolved from being primarily rooted in the common law writ of habeas corpus to the current statutory scheme under § 2255. Part II outlines the Fourth and Sixth Circuit split regarding whether the savings clause of § 2255 can be triggered by a new statutory interpretation by a circuit court. Finally, Part III argues for Supreme Court intervention given the sharp circuit split regarding the scope of the savings clause. A definitive interpretation of the savings clause by the Supreme Court could bring much needed clarity to the confusion. This is especially true when the statute’s text, traditional cannons of construction, and fundamental values of the criminal legal system have all failed to render a consistent interpretation.

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