939 F.3d 695 (6th Cir. 2019), 17-4257, Wright v. Spaulding

Docket Nº:17-4257
Citation:939 F.3d 695
Opinion Judge:THAPAR, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:William Andrew WRIGHT, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Stephen SPAULDING, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.
Attorney:Angela M. Schaefer, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Huntsville, Alabama, for Appellant. Segev Phillips, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellee. Angela M. Schaefer, Scott Burnett Smith, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Huntsville, Alabama, Edmund Scott Sauer, BRADLEY ARA...
Judge Panel:Before: SILER and THAPAR, Circuit Judges; HOOD, District Judge. THAPAR, Circuit Judge, concurring.
Case Date:September 19, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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939 F.3d 695 (6th Cir. 2019)

William Andrew WRIGHT, Petitioner-Appellant,


Stephen SPAULDING, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 17-4257

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 19, 2019

Argued: April 15, 2019

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Youngstown. No. 4:17-cv-02097— Christopher A. Boyko, District Judge.


Angela M. Schaefer, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Huntsville, Alabama, for Appellant.

Segev Phillips, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellee.


Angela M. Schaefer, Scott Burnett Smith, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Huntsville, Alabama, Edmund Scott Sauer, BRADLEY ARANT BOULT CUMMINGS LLP, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Segev 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 Judge.[*]

THAPAR, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which SILER, J., and HOOD, D.J., joined.

THAPAR, J. (pp. 706-10), also delivered a separate concurring opinion.


THAPAR, Circuit Judge.

The circuits have extended habeas law far beyond the limits set by Congress.

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How far? The simple answer is not far enough to help William Wright. The more complicated answer follows.


First, 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.

Instead, Wright challenged his sentence years later, after the Supreme Court handed down Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (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 § 2255 motion.

Yet Wright was not done trying to challenge his sentence. He took another shot after the Supreme Court handed down Mathis v. United States, __ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 2243, 195 L.Ed.2d 604 (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.


This 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.

Soon 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.

Armed with these basics, we discover the law that governs Wright’s case. And that law makes clear that Wright’s petition must be dismissed.


The 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

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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, 72 S.Ct. 263, 96 L.Ed. 232 (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.

As the 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, 72 S.Ct. 263. 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.

But § 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.

The 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).

That’s 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.

First, 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, 116 S.Ct. 501, 133 L.Ed.2d 472 (1995). This holding undid years of more expansive circuit precedent. See

id. at 142-43, 116 S.Ct. 501.

Second, 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.

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See Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 664, 116 S.Ct. 2333, 135 L.Ed.2d 827 (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).

The 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.

This 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...

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