Quarreling Jurists in Atlanta Argue Second-and-Successives – Update for August 6, 2016

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The 11th Circuit easily has been the most dysfunctional federal circuit when it comes to granting permission to inmates for second-and-successive 2255 motions under Johnson v. United States. The Circuit has spawned more reported decisions on the subject, and those have rarely been shining examples of judicial thought. Earlier this week, three-judge panel issued a decision granting leave for a second-and-successive which was notable for its unbridled criticism of a similar decision of another three-judge panel.

Inmate Devon Chance was given permission to challenge some or all of his many 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) convictions (he got 1,794 months for a string of armed robberies) on the grounds that the “crime of violence” definition in the statute – which contains a residual clause – is unconstitutional after Johnson. That decision alone was hardly remarkable. But what followed was.

The Court complained that “although our published opinions repeatedly have emphasized that the district court is to consider § 2255 motions de novo, in the whirl of orders addressing Johnson, a recent published order [In re Moore] from this Court discussed in dicta what districts courts purportedly ‘must’ do in adjudicating Johnson claims in § 2255(h) motions. The Moore panel acknowledged that ‘the district court is to decide the § 2255(h) issues fresh, or in the legal vernacular, “de novo”.’ But in the very next sentence, the Moore panel seemed to contradict that instruction by telling the district court that it ‘must decide whether or not Moore was sentenced under the residual clause in 2000’.” The panel then added ‘one further thought,’ also in the form of a command about what the district court can and cannot do: that ‘the district court cannot grant relief in a § 2255 proceeding unless the movant… proves that he was sentenced using the residual clause’.”

The Chance decision noted acidulously that “not only is Moore’s dicta just that – dicta – but it also seems quite wrong. Of course,” the Chance court said, “we recognize that what we are about to say has no more legal force than the Moore panel’s commentary (that is: none)… but we think Moore is wrong, for two reasons. First, it implies that the district judge deciding Mr. Chance’s upcoming § 2255 motion can ignore decisions from the Supreme Court that were rendered since that time in favor of a foray into a stale record. Assuming that Johnson does apply to § 924(c)’s “very similar” residual clause, then district courts must determine “‘categorically’–that is, by reference to the elements of the offense, and not the actual facts of [the defendant’s] conduct” — whether that offense qualifies as a crime of violence… In applying the categorical approach, it would make no sense for a district court to have to ignore precedent such as Descamps v. United States and Mathis v. United States, the Supreme Court’s binding interpretations of that approach. And yet, the Moore panel suggested that the sentencing court must ignore that precedent unless the sentencing judge uttered the magic words “residual clause.”

“There is a second problem with Moore’s command that an inmate must prove whether the district court used the words “residual clause” at his potentially decades-old sentencing. Nothing in the law requires a judge to specify which clause of § 924(c) — residual or elements clause — he relied upon in imposing a sentence…”

“Critically,” the Chance decision said, “when an inmate asks a court of appeals to certify a second or successive § 2255 motion, § 2255(h) is our sole source of authority to do or say anything in the case. That means any discussion of topics beyond ‘the § 2255(h) issues’ is irrelevant to a case and therefore dicta.”

In re Chance, Case No. 16-13198 (11th Cir. August 2, 2016)


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