Saturday, June 11, 2022

Significant. . .

In a somewhat small decision with not so small impact, the Supreme Court on March 25 ruled 8-1 in favor of a death row inmate who sought to hear in person the prayers and feel the touch of his pastor. The decision is significant precisely because it impacts the very nature of religious freedom in its application of protections of that freedom even to the extreme of the execution chamber.

Writing for the majority, the opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts confirms that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, like other justice departments, has a clear interest in safely carrying out execution procedures but insists such safety concerns do not justify barring inmates from hearing a prayer or having a spiritual adviser next to them as they die.

“Prison officials could impose reasonable restrictions on audible prayer in the execution chamber — such as limiting the volume of any prayer so that medical officials can monitor an inmate’s condition, requiring silence during critical points in the execution process, ... allowing a spiritual advisor to speak only with the inmate and subjecting advisors to immediate removal for failure to comply with any rule,” Roberts wrote for the majority.  I do not know if there was a minority opinion but, strangely enough, Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter in the case. 

What is odd is that at the very time one petitioner sought clarity for the importance of presence to the Christian in time of need and death, we still live in a world where Christians of nearly all persuasions have decided that it is precisely presence that is not necessary or essential to the practice of their religion.  For them the digital word is presence enough -- whether by speaker into the ear or eye on the screen.  How interesting it is, then, that this case hinges on whether the in person presence is a protected aspect of religious freedom.  I wonder where that could lead?



Carl Vehse said...

In his dissenting opinion (which is definitely worth reading), Justice Thomas wrote:

"[In 2004] Petitioner John Henry Ramirez stabbed Pablo Castro 29 times during a robbery that netted $1.25. Castro bled to death in a parking lot. Since that day, Ramirez has manufactured more than a decade of delay to evade the capital sentence lawfully imposed by the State of Texas. This Court now affords yet another chance for him to delay his execution. Because I think Ramirez’s claims either do not warrant equitable relief or are procedurally barred, I respectfully dissent. [p. 1]

"Today, this Court should have denied equitable relief to a prisoner who has acted inequitably—as both the District Court and Court of Appeals did before us. Ramirez’s shifting litigation position lays bare what he really wants: “to manipulate the judicial process” to win further delay. Gomez, 503 U. S., at 654. The record all but speaks for itself. In August 2020, when Ramirez first demanded that Texas allow his pastor into the chamber, he explicitly avowed that his pastor 'need not touch' him 'at any time in the execution chamber.' App. 61. Taking Ramirez at his word, Texas eventually acquiesced. But then Ramirez flipped his position and filed another administrative grievance and §1983 complaint demanding what he had earlier disclaimed: touching in the execution chamber. See id., at 19, 52. This is a textbook example of dilatory and abusive “piecemeal litigation” against which we have warned courts in equity to guard. See Hill, 547 U. S., at 585. Like Chief Judge Owen, I think that the shift in Ramirez’s litigation posture alone justifies denying equitable relief because it 'indicates that the change in position is strategic and that delay is the goal.' 10 F. 4th, at 562 (Owen, C. J., concurring). [p. 8]

"In the end, none of Ramirez’s federal habeas claims merited even a single certificate of appealability, let alone relief. Yet, through ceaseless litigation, strategic delay, and a '[l]ast-minute' blitz on the District Court, Bucklew, 587 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 30), Ramirez parlayed his federal habeas petition into a 7-year deferral of his lawfully imposed sentence. We should interpret Ramirez’s actions in the instant litigation in light of that history, recognize that his shifting in-chambers-touching claim is just another chapter in that history, and reject his most recent attempt to delay his execution. [p. 11]

"In RLUIPA, Congress created a potent tool with which prisoners can protect their sincerely held religious beliefs. But, like any tool, it can be wielded abusively. And few have a greater incentive to do so than death-row inmates. To counter such abuse, federal courts sitting in equity have a duty to dismiss piecemeal, late-breaking, dilatory, specious, speculative, or manipulative litigation. RLUIPA itself complements that process by requiring a prisoner to demonstrate sincerity. [p. 22]

"Meanwhile, Congress passed the PLRA to force prisoners to exhaust their complaints through state prisons’ administrative review processes so that prison officials might resolve, or at least build a record to help shed light on, an alleged problem before it escalates to litigation. Federal courts have a duty under the PLRA to dismiss these unexhausted claims. [pp. 22-3]

"Today, the Court shrugs off both of these duties. It grants equitable relief for a demonstrably abusive and insincere claim filed by a prisoner with an established history of seeking unjustified delay, harming the State and Ramirez’s victims in the process. The Court also forgives the same prisoner’s complete failure to exhaust another claim." [p. 23]

Carl Vehse said...

This whole case would be irrelevant, and Ramirez would have long ceased stealing oxygen, if the method of execution were the electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad, or hanging, since safety procedures would require the religious advisor not be next to, or touching, the person being executed.

And when the method of execution is by hanging, the religious advisor cannot be standing on the trap door with the condemned person or next to the person when reaching the end of the drop.

This case provides more reason for the Texas governor and legislators to "man up" and replace the lethal injection method with previous alternatives used in capital punishment.