(CN) – The Supreme Court decided Monday not to hear a challenge to limits on postconviction relief for prisoners, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the court should settle a circuit split the next time a similar case comes before it.
Federal law protects the right of all people who are incarcerated in the U.S. to seek relief when they believe their sentences violate a specific law or the U.S. Constitution.
Edwin Arthur Avery is a federal prisoner who filed successive petitions for habeas relief, but the district court dismissed them based on a controversial interpretation of two statutes that set different requirements for state and federal prisoners.
Attorneys for Avery from the firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr argued in a petition last November that the Supreme Court should take up the case to resolve a longstanding circuit split over how the statutes are applied.
But the justices disagreed on Monday, leaving alone lower court rulings that said the issue needs more time to percolate as courts interpret the intersection of the laws.
U.S. Code Section 2255 allows federal prisoners to seek postconviction relief. Another part of the law, Section 2254, lets state prisoners apply for federal postconviction relief.
A third provision, Section 2244, states that a second or successive habeas corpus application filed under 2254 must be dismissed.
The issue in Avery’s case is whether the dismissal requirement applies only to applications filed by state prisoners under Section 2254. Six federal courts have ruled the opposite, finding that the dismissal statute also applies to Section 2255 applications by federal prisoners.
Going against the other circuits, the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit ruled last year in a different case that the dismissal rule for success habeas applications applies only to those filed by state prisoners.
While the Supreme Court ultimately decided not to resolve the split at this time, Justice Kavanaugh noted in a separate statement that the federal government now agrees with the Sixth Circuit that the dismissal requirement does not apply to federal prisoners seeking postconviction relief.
“In other words, the government now disagrees with the rulings of the six Courts of Appeals that had previously decided the issue in the government’s favor,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In a future case, I would grant certiorari to resolve the circuit split on this question of federal law.”