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Ketanji Brown Jackson calls out majority for unjustly ignoring innocence claims

All three Democratic appointees dissented from the GOP ruling, but Jackson wrote her own 39-page dissent.


The Supreme Court’s Republican majority issued its latest opinion showing it views criminal appeals with paranoid suspicion and doesn’t care if innocent people are locked up.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson responded with logic and moral clarity to the unjust ruling, which she said leads to “forever slamming the courtroom doors to a possibly innocent person.”

The decision Thursday in Jones v. Hendrix involves a complicated area of the law but boils down to the basic question of whether potentially innocent people can even bring their claims to court.

The six-justice GOP majority, led by Clarence Thomas, said no. It reasoned that a federally incarcerated person is prohibited from challenging their conviction more than once after an initial appeal — even if that person couldn’t have brought a claim of legal innocence previously.

To understand the issue, look to the man at the center of the case, Marcus DeAngelo Jones. He was convicted in 2000 for a gun crime that became harder for the government to prove after a 2019 Supreme Court decision. That is, he might not have been convicted in 2000 under this new reading of the law at issue.

The Joe Biden appointee paints a bleak, if accurate, picture of the court’s approach to favoring 'finality' over justice.

Naturally, Jones wanted to take advantage of that new Supreme Court ruling, under which he could be legally innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. But according to the Supreme Court majority, because Jones had already challenged his conviction before 2019, he couldn’t press the new claim that could free him.

If that doesn’t seem to make any sense, there are three Supreme Court justices who agree with you.

Indeed, there are multiple things wrong with the ruling, as Jackson observed in her 39-page dissent. Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented separately, on slightly different grounds, in a rare joint opinion that nonetheless noted their agreement with Jackson that the majority opinion is “disturbing.”

The lengthier dissent from Jackson, a former U.S. sentencing commissioner and federal defender, meticulously dissected the majority opinion. She explained the intricate legal background leading to the common-sense bottom line that the majority “places prisoners in an untenable catch-22 that cannot be what any rational Congress actually intended.”

Taking stock of what she called the “palpably absurd” outcome in Jones’ case, Jackson summed up the situation this way:

It begins with the Supreme Court’s (rare) announcement that a certain claim for release exists and is retroactively available to incarcerated individuals on collateral review, and ends with the realization that only an arbitrarily determined sliver of eligible prisoners (those who have not had the temerity to file a prior motion) are actually in a position to even ask a court to consider whether any such relief might be provided.

While the result in this case is shocking enough, Jackson observed that it’s part of a pattern of Supreme Court rulings about postconviction appeals that have created “imagined artificial barriers, arbitrary dead ends, and traps for the unwary.” She went on to argue that it’s “quite clear” that these decisions “reflect a general ethos” that convicted prisoners shouldn’t be able to file claims or obtain any relief.  

The Joe Biden appointee paints a bleak, if accurate, picture of the court’s approach to favoring “finality” over justice.

But she doesn’t end there. Rather, Jackson implores Congress to respond to the court’s “systematic neutering of the balanced postconviction processes that the Legislature has established.” She wrote that the Jones case “creates an opening for Congress to step in and fix this problem” of the decision that “unjustifiably closes off all avenues for certain defendants to secure meaningful consideration of their innocence claims.”

I would add another branch of government that could respond: the executive. Given the issue is about federal prisoners, Biden could pardon or commute any sentences left hanging in the balance by this ruling. His appointee aptly makes the case for him.     

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