Argued: April 15, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Ohio at Youngstown. No. 4:17-cv-02097-Christopher
A. Boyko, District Judge.
M. Schaefer, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Huntsville,
Alabama, for Appellant.
Phillips, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Cleveland,
Ohio, for Appellee.
M. Schaefer, Scott Burnett Smith, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT
CUMMINGS LLP, Huntsville, Alabama, Edmund Scott Sauer,
BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Nashville, Tennessee, for
Phillips, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Cleveland,
Ohio, Joshua K. Handell, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,
Washington, D.C., for Appellee. Clark D. Cunningham, GEORGIA
STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW, Atlanta, Georgia, for Amici
Curiae. William A. Wright, Lisbon, Michigan, pro se.
Before: SILER and THAPAR, Circuit Judges; HOOD, District
THAPAR, Circuit Judge.
circuits have extended habeas law far beyond the limits set
by Congress. How far? The simple answer is not far enough to
help William Wright. The more complicated answer follows.
a quick procedural history. As a felon in possession of a
firearm, William Wright would normally receive up to ten
years in prison. But Wright had three prior convictions for
"serious drug offenses," so he qualified as an
armed career criminal. That meant at least 15 years'
imprisonment (and a maximum of life). A Maryland district
judge accepted his plea and gave him the minimum sentence. At
the time, Wright did not dispute his status as an armed
career criminal, nor did he file an appeal.
Wright challenged his sentence years later, after the Supreme
Court handed down Johnson v. United States, 135
S.Ct. 2551 (2015). That decision held the "residual
clause" of the Armed Career Criminal Act to be
unconstitutionally vague. Id. at 2563; see
18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). But Wright had a problem:
his argument had nothing to do with Johnson or the
residual clause (which related to violent felonies, not drug
offenses). So the Maryland district court denied his §
Wright was not done trying to challenge his sentence. He took
another shot after the Supreme Court handed down Mathis
v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016). But this time
he faced a different problem: he couldn't file a new
motion in the sentencing court because the habeas
statutes limit "second or successive" motions.
See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). Instead, Wright filed
a habeas corpus petition in the district court where he now
happened to be imprisoned: the Northern District of Ohio. The
district court dismissed his petition. Wright appealed.
case is about two things: habeas and holdings. Under the
system Congress enacted, Wright's habeas petition would
be dead on arrival. Congress prescribed one venue to
challenge your sentence after appeal: the sentencing court.
And it imposed limits on the number and timing of challenges.
But that system left some prisoners without a shot at relief.
So courts, this one included, used something known as the
"saving clause" to create an escape hatch.
courts found themselves construing not just the law as
written but also the law as applied (and misapplied) by
courts. Yet interpreting precedents is not always an easy
business. Especially when they add to, rather than implement,
what Congress has done. To understand what binds us, then, we
must first know some basics. About the habeas system: what
the statutes say, where they came from, and what about them
sent courts looking for a workaround. And about how courts
operate: by resolving concrete disputes and announcing the
legal rules essential to doing so. Those necessary decisions
are the holdings that bind future courts. Not dispensable
dicta that sweep more broadly than the issue at hand. To
ignore these principles is to risk drifting far from any law
enacted by Congress or decided by a court.
with these basics, we discover the law that governs
Wright's case. And that law makes clear that Wright's
petition must be dismissed.
general habeas statute empowers federal courts to grant the
writ. 28 U.S.C. § 2241(a). Until 1948, any federal
prisoner who wanted to challenge his detention relied on this
statute. But that created a problem for jurisdictions with
many federal prisons, since prisoners had to petition in the
district in which they were housed. And that meant certain
districts bore the brunt of federal habeas litigation. To
solve this problem, Congress enacted § 2255. The new
statute directed federal prisoners to challenge their
sentences in the district where they were sentenced, not the
district of detention. See id. § 2255(a), (c);
United States v. Hayman, 342 U.S. 205, 212–19
(1952) (discussing the history); Prost v. Anderson,
636 F.3d 578, 587–88 (10th Cir. 2011) (same). In other
words, prisoners would file a motion under § 2255 in
their sentencing court, not a traditional habeas petition in
the court of their prison district.
Supreme Court later explained, the "sole purpose"
of § 2255 was to change the venue for challenges to a
sentence. Hayman, 342 U.S. at 219. Congress's
decision to redirect sentencing back to the sentencing
court made perfect sense. If the sentencing judge erred
in sentencing the defendant, then he or she should fix it.
The best judge to fix a sentence is a judge intimately
familiar with the defendant, the case, and the local
practices. Not a judge who has never touched the case before.
§ 2255 never replaced § 2241 in its entirety. From
the beginning, § 2255 was qualified by a saving
clause-in non-legalese, an "unless." A habeas
petition by a federal prisoner is barred "unless . . .
the [§ 2255] remedy by motion is inadequate or
ineffective to test the legality of his detention." 28
U.S.C. § 2255(e). In that case, a § 2241 petition
might be viable.
statute does not say when the motion remedy is
"inadequate or ineffective[.]" But it is easy to
think of examples. By its terms, § 2255 only covers
challenges to a sentence. See id. §
2255(a) (authorizing motions "to vacate, set aside, or
correct the sentence" "upon the ground that the
sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws
of the United States, or that the court was without
jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence
was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is
otherwise subject to collateral attack"). And an invalid
sentence is hardly the only thing a federal prisoner might
challenge. Imagine a warden held a prisoner in a manner
contrary to or not authorized by the sentence. In that case,
§ 2255 would be "inadequate or ineffective to test
the validity of his detention," and § 2241 would be
the correct cause of action. Id. § 2255(e);
see also Samak v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 766
F.3d 1271, 1284–86 (11th Cir. 2014) (Pryor, J.,
concurring). Another example would be if the sentencing court
no longer exists. See Prost, 636 F.3d at 588;
Witham v. United States, 355 F.3d 501, 504–05
(6th Cir. 2004).
how courts read the saving clause for most of its history.
The rule was simple: § 2255 for attacks on a sentence,
§ 2241 for other challenges to detention. See,
e.g., Wright v. U.S. Bd. of Parole, 557 F.2d
74, 77 (6th Cir. 1977). Then two events led to a judicial
expansion of the saving clause.
a case. The Supreme Court held that using a firearm required
more than mere possession, it required "active
employment." Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S.
137, 144 (1995). This holding undid years of more expansive
circuit precedent. See id. at 142–43.
a statute. Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act in 1996. AEDPA tried to curb what courts
used to call "abuse of the writ"-the nonstop filing
of meritless habeas petitions. See Felker v. Turpin,
518 U.S. 651, 664 (1996). Under the statute, "second or
successive" motions by federal prisoners have had to
rely on either (1) new and convincing evidence that the
prisoner is innocent or (2) a new and previously unavailable
rule of constitutional law that the Supreme Court has made
retroactive. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h).
one-two punch of Bailey and AEDPA raised a problem:
what to do about prisoners who (1) were convicted and
sentenced under the expansive pre-Bailey definition
of using a firearm, (2) filed a § 2255 motion before
Bailey, and (3) could not succeed before
Bailey because of then-binding circuit precedent.
Bailey was not new evidence. Nor was it a new rule
of constitutional law. It was just a run-of-the-mill
case of statutory interpretation. So Bailey did
those prisoners no good-they could not satisfy either of the
§ 2255(h) gateways for a second or successive motion.
bothered courts. It seemed unfair to apply § 2255(h) to
close the procedural door on prisoners whose Bailey
arguments might be winners. And so, one by one, circuits
started to devise a workaround: the saving clause. The Third
Circuit led the way, holding that § 2255 did not bar a
§ 2241 petition by someone in the "unusual
position" of having had "no earlier
opportunity" to bring a Bailey argument. In
re Dorsainvil, 119 F.3d 245, 251 (3d Cir. 1997). The
Second Circuit followed suit. Triestman v. United
States,124 F.3d 361, 377 (2d Cir. 1997). And the third
court to speak, the Seventh Circuit, held that a prisoner had
"no reasonable opportunity" to challenge his
sentence if binding precedent foreclosed such a challenge.
In re Davenport, 147 F.3d 605, ...