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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali and the Supreme Court

Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer ever, has died.  He was the central figure in a 1971 Supreme Court case, Clay v. United States. (His birth name was Cassius Clay, which he changed when he converted to Islam).  The syllabus:
Petitioner appealed his local draft board's rejection of his application for conscientious objector classification. The Justice Department, in response to the State Appeal Board's referral for an advisory recommendation, concluded, contrary to a hearing officer's recommendation, that petitioner's claim should be denied, and wrote that board that petitioner did not meet any of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status. The Appeal Board then denied petitioner's claim, but without stating its reasons. Petitioner refused to report for induction, for which he was thereafter tried and convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed. In this Court, the Government has rightly conceded the invalidity of two of the grounds for denial of petitioner's claim given in its letter to the Appeal Board, but argues that there was factual support for the third ground.

Held: Since the Appeal Board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, and it is impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department's letter that board relied, petitioner's conviction must be reversed. Sicurella v. United States, 348 U. S. 385.
At Yahoo several years ago, Scott Bomboy wrote:
In the book The Brethern: Inside The Supreme Court, Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) and Scott Armstrong detailed how the eight justices hearing Ali’s case about his draft stratus changed the verdict after their initial conference. (Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case due to his prior role as Solicitor General.)
Initially, Woodward and Armstrong said the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-3 against Ali during a conference.
Then the justice assigned to write the majority decision, John M. Harlan, changed his vote after a clerk gave him a book to read that made Ali’s religious convictions clear.

The book was reportedly The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, and Harlan realized Ali had deep-seated religious convictions that made him a true conscientious objector.

But that left the court divided at 4-4, and since Ali had lost his lower court appeal, he would lose the Supreme Court case. And the court’s rules would also leave Ali without an explanation for the court’s decision.


Woodward and Armstrong said it was Justice Potter Stewart who looked at the case and convinced the other justices that the lower courts never explained why they turned down Ali’s appeals.