“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy wrote a January 2020 opinion in Hueso v. Barnhart that required a man to remain in prison for another decade, even though a change in the law meant that his initial sentence was improper. This was despite the fact, as Murphy acknowledged, that he would have been released from prison if he happened to be confined in a federal prison in a different part of the country. Judge Karen Nelson Moore strongly dissented from the “Kafkaesque” result.
In 2009, an Alaskan district court sentenced Ramon Hueso to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Hueso had already been twice convicted in Washington of drug offenses which, as of 2009, were considered “felony drug offenses” in the Ninth Circuit under federal law. The Ninth Circuit then interpreted federal law as classifying an offense like Hueso’s as a felony drug offense if the maximum sentence under state law spanned more than one year. But under Washington state guidelines, the maximum sentence Hueso could have received (and did receive) for each offense was only six months. In accord with other courts, the Ninth Circuit corrected its interpretation of the federal law in 2019 so that “it is the prescribed [state] guidelines range—not the statutory maximum—that must be considered when determining whether a prior conviction was a felony offense.” In short, if Hueso had been convicted in 2019, his sentence would have been 10 years, not 20.
In 2019, Hueso accordingly filed a petition for post-conviction relief, known as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, from Kentucky, where he was then confined, to reduce his sentence and correct the Ninth Circuit’s erroneous interpretation of the law. But because Hueso had previously contested his sentence on different grounds under one federal law, 28 U.S.C. 2255, restrictive federal legislation provided that someone like Hueso cannot file a second motion under 2255. An important statutory “safety valve,” however, allows a person like Hueso to file a later habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2241 to challenge a sentence if a motion under 2255 is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.”
In a similar case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that an individual in that set of circumstances could rely on an appeals court’s change in statutory interpretation to use 2241 to challenge a criminal sentence. The Sixth Circuit itself reached a similar result in 2016 when the change in interpretation came from the Supreme Court. But Murphy’s ruling, directly contrary to the Fourth Circuit result, denied that the Ninth Circuit’s correction of its interpretation of the law should allow Hueso to challenge his sentence under 2241. Murphy acknowledged that the ruling created “unequal treatment of similarly situated parties,” but maintained that his opinion was more “true to the text and structure” of federal statutory law.
Judge Moore strongly disagreed. In a 20-page dissent, she carefully analyzed Murphy’s reasoning and found that it “falls short” and contradicts “well-established” case law in the Sixth Circuit and elsewhere. In fact, she noted, the majority opinion suggested that if it were not bound by previous precedent, it would “constrict the availability of habeas corpus even more than it does today.”
A proper interpretation for Hueso, Moore explained, would “cut his mandatory minimum in half” and “could result in his immediate release from prison.” “Each day” that Hueso “sits in prison longer than the law requires,” she went on, “our invocations of justice and fairness ring a little hollower.”
Indeed, habeas corpus is intended to offer recourse for precisely such injustices, but the consequences of Murphy’s opinion will produce the opposite result. As Judge Moore explained, the ruling was all too typical of recent efforts by the Sixth Circuit with Trump judges to “erect petty procedural barriers” to defeat “undisputedly meritorious claims” like Hueso’s.