SCOTUS weighs rights of federal prisoners to challenge convictions

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court Justices heard arguments Tuesday in a case that will impact the rights of federal prisoners to challenge their convictions.

It’s focused on the case of Marcus DeAngelo Jones, who was convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon and sentenced to 27 years in prison in 2000.

Jones argued that because of a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, which upheld that proving intent is necessary to convict someone of that charge, he was never guilty and should be allowed to challenge the conviction.

“Conviction and punishment for an act that the law does not make criminal inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” said attorney Daniel Ortiz, Director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, who argued on behalf of Jones.

The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled against a habeas corpus petition for Jones, which would have given him the chance to prove that his incarceration is illegal.

The lower court argued Jones could have filed the claim earlier, and without new evidence is not entitled to file the legal challenge.

A big question comes down to the interpretation of a provision in the law set by Congress in 1996 that narrows when federal prisoners can challenge their convictions.

“This court generally assumes that Congress acts rationally and neither petitioner nor the government has any answer to a few basic questions about why Congress would have acted the way they think it did,” argued attorney Morgan Ratner, from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, in defense of the 8th Circuit Court’s decision.

Ratner argues the circuit court properly limited the scope of the law.

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a ruling in this case by the summer.