Supreme Court Takes Up Case On Federal Prisoner “Safety Valve”

In 1948, Congress decided that using habeas corpus for collateral attacks on federal criminal judgments presented too many practical problems, so it created a new “motion to vacate” procedure in 28 USC § 2255. Congress provided that the new motion would be available on any ground that made the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack. Then it barred use of habeas corpus for this purpose, but added a “safety valve” that resort to habeas corpus could still be had if the motion procedure was “ineffective or inadequate” to test the validity of the prisoner’s detention.

Collateral attacks on criminal judgments (habeas corpus for state prisoners and § 2255 for federal prisoners) grew like weeds for the next five decades until Congress clamped down in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

Does the “safety valve” effectively negate the reforms for federal prisoners? Can they simply dance around the limits by saying the limits render the § 2255 remedy “ineffective or inadequate” and file a habeas corpus petition? The obvious answer is “no.” Congress does not enact laws with the intent that they be easily evaded. Yet, there is a circuit split, and today the Supreme Court took the question up.

The case is Jones v. Hendrix, No. 21-857, reviewing a decision of the Eighth Circuit.

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