The writ of habeas corpus presents the last chance for innocent defendants to obtain relief from invalid convictions and sentences. The writ constitutes a limited exception to the finality of judgments. Given the role finality plays in conserving judicial resources and deterring criminal conduct, exceptions created by habeas must be principally circumscribed. Since the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause in Johnson v. United States, the federal courts of appeals have attempted to develop a test that protects the writ from abuse by Johnson claimants.

This Note first contributes a new understanding of the resulting circuit split. Currently, circuits construe the split to be about a Johnson petitioner’s burden of proof at the jurisdictional stage. However, circuits actually disagree on the standard a petitioner must meet to establish the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. This Note identifies two standards. The sole-reliance standard requires petitioners to show that the sentencing court relied solely on the residual clause, while the possible-reliance standard requires petitioners to show that the court may have relied on the residual clause. Both standards must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence. This Note then deploys this reconceptualization of the circuit split to advance new arguments in favor of imposing the possible-reliance standard at the jurisdictional stage. The possible-reliance standard protects the innocent, preserves the finality of judgments, and conforms with Supreme Court habeas jurisprudence and congressional intent expressed in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.