Clarence Thomas’ Latest Criminal Justice Ruling Is an Outright Tragedy

Essentially the case involves this scenario: What if it turns out that the federal courts that heard your criminal case made a mistake? And as a result of the courts’ mistake, you were convicted of something that isn’t actually a crime at all (because federal law doesn’t prohibit what you did), or, as a result of the courts’ mistake, you were sentenced to more time in prison than the law says you can be sentenced to? Can a federal court later correct the error in a federal habeas corpus proceeding when you challenge your conviction or sentence?

Today, the court, in a 6–3 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, answered that question with a no. For people watching this catastrophe happen in real time, the result is not surprising. But it is a catastrophe nonetheless. As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her powerful dissent, the opinion “unjustifiably closes off all avenues for certain defendants to secure meaningful consideration of their innocence claims.”

As a result of this opinion, people with illegal convictions and sentences—people who are legally innocent—will be stuck in prison for no good reason because the courts screwed up, not because they did. The law certainly did not require this result. And the Jones debacle carries a few warnings about the nightmare at One First Street.