What Lurks Below Beckles
23 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2016 Last revised: 4 Nov 2016
Date Written: August 25, 2016
The Supreme Court will soon decide if Travis Beckles’s prison sentence is illegal. Mr. Beckles was sentenced years ago, and his appeal to the Supreme Court is on post-conviction review. Normally when the Supreme Court invalidates a prison sentence in a post-conviction case, the Court’s holding applies to all other post-conviction cases as well. But the way Mr. Beckles’s lawyers are arguing his case, relief for Mr. Beckles will do nothing for prisoners in certain circuits whose sentences would be illegal for the same reason as Mr. Beckles’s. And if the Supreme Court doesn’t preemptively address these potential circuit splits in the Beckles case then it may never have a chance to do so, because of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA) restrictions on the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over post-conviction cases.
The Court should both be aware of these lurking issues and use Beckles as the vehicle to weigh in on them. Doing so may be the only way to ensure that any right announced in Beckles applies uniformly across the country. Two decades ago, when the Supreme Court upheld AEDPA's restrictions on the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in post-conviction cases, three Justices warned that the emergence of un-reviewable circuit splits could make those restrictions unconstitutional. As we show below, the aftermath of the Supreme Court's recent Johnson and Welch rulings are what those Justices warned about. These constitutional concerns are a reason for the Court to depart from its usual reluctance to analyze questions not directly raised in a petition for certiorari and frame the analysis in Beckles in a way that avoids a repeat of the mess that ensued after Johnson and Welch.
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