Back to the Future: Permitting Habeas Petitions Based on Intervening Retroactive Case Law to Alter Convictions and Sentences

By Lauren Casale

In 1948, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which authorizes a motion for federal prisoners to “vacate, set aside or correct” their sentences, with the goal of improving judicial efficiency in collateral review. Section 2255(e), known as the “savings clause,” allows federal inmates to challenge the validity of their imprisonments with writs of habeas corpus if § 2255 motions are “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [their] detention[s].” Due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s and Congress’s silence regarding what suffices as “inadequate or ineffective,” the circuit courts have adopted varied standards.

The Sixth and Seventh Circuits hold that prisoners can use the savings clause to challenge their convictions or sentences based on new retroactive case law. On the other hand, the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits prejudice prisoners by prohibiting them from challenging their convictions or sentences based on new case law. Recently, the Fourth Circuit expanded the circuit split by agreeing with the Sixth and Seventh Circuits in United States v. Wheeler. A petition for a writ of certiorari in Wheeler is currently pending before the Supreme Court. This Note examines the circuits’ different standards and contends that the circuits that foreclose savings clause challenges impermissibly curtail prisoners’ rights. Further, this Note argues that the Supreme Court must define the scope of the savings clause to permit prisoners to challenge their convictions and sentences under the provision.