June 28, 1971 – Supreme Court Decides Cassius Clay, Jr. (Muhammad Ali) v. U.S.

On this day in history, the Supreme Court decided Cassius Marsellus Clay, Jr. also known as Muhammad Ali, Petitioner, v. US (403 U.S. 698).

As the Court noted:

The petitioner was convicted for willful refusal to submit to induction into the Armed Forces. 62 Stat. 622, as amended, 50 U.S.C.App. § 462(a). (1964 ed., Supp. V). The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. We granted certiorari, 400 U.S. 990, 91 S.Ct. 457, 27 L.Ed.2d 438 to consider whether the induction notice was invalid because grounded upon an erroneous denial of the petitioner’s claim to be classified as a conscientious objector.” (Footnote omitted)

Daily News Backpage June 29, 1971

In February, 1964, at age twenty two, Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing title by upsetting Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Two days later, Clay revealed that he had become a convert to the Muslim faith. The following week, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad declared that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali.

In February 1966, the Selective Service informed Ali that he was, for the first time, eligible for military service. Ali announced his objection to serving in the Vietnam War, claiming that “war is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an.” Notably, he added:

‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform,’ he said, ‘and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’”

A review of the case by the Inter Press Service News Agency explained that Ali applied for conscientious-objector classification, only to have multiple appeals rejected. At the scheduled induction, Ali refused to answer all three times his name was called. Ali was immediately stripped of his boxing license and championship, and in 1967, he was indicted and convicted by the Justice Department of violating the Selective Service laws.

(It should be noted, as Marty Lederman writing for SCOTUSblog pointed out, that DOJ convened a hearing before a designated “hearing officer,” Lawrence Grauman, a well-respected former Kentucky state judge. Judge Grauman concluded that Ali had a sincere religious objection to war in any form, and he recommended that the service grant Ali status as a conscientious objector. The DOJ, however, did not forward Judge Grauman’s report to the appeal board, or even tell Ali what the judge had concluded. Instead, DOJ wrote its own letter to the appeal board, advising that it should reject Ali’s conscientious objector claim.)

Ali demonstrating against the Vietnam War

Eventually, the case made it to the US Supreme Court (Lederman reviews the complex journey in detail.) Lederman explains that the statutory test for conscientious objector status was whether an individual was opposed to war in any form. Objections to a particular war didn’t count.

This distinction was critical to the case.

The appeals board had found that Ali’s objection was selective, because he acknowledged he would be willing to fight for Islam in a “religious” or “holy” war, and whether that concept varied among different strains of Islam.

Lederman provides fascinating details about how the Court moved from its initial inclination to find against Ali. Thomas Krattenmaker, one of Justice Harlan’s law clerks (Justice Harlan was assigned the writing of the majority opinion) began to review the canonical Nation of Islam texts Ali had cited as the basis for his religious objection. Krattenmaker, Lederman writes, “came to understand that the prospect of such a ‘holy war’ was entirely abstract and hypothetical – contingent upon future events and a divine decree that were unlikely ever to occur.” Thus it seemed that Ali’s case was similar to the 1955 case Sicurella v. United States (348 U.S. 385) in which a Jehovah’s Witness claimed to be only willing to fight in a “theocratic war” at Armageddon. The Court concluded that was unlikely to occur. . . . Lederman writes:

Ali’s willingness to fight in a war only if commanded to do so by God made his case analogous to Sicarella’s, Krattenmaker reasoned: Ali was, as a practical matter, religiously opposed to fighting in any wars that might actually occur.”

He persuaded Justice Harlan of his position.

John Marshall Harlan II

(You can watch a video of Tom Krattenmaker, Eugene Robinson and Michele Norris discussing the case on an NPR segment, here.)

The justices then got into a debate on the Islamic notion of jihad, or “holy war.”

The justices were divided four to four (Thurgood Marshall was recused because he had been Solicitor General in an earlier phase of the case).

As an excellent Federal Judiciary Center history recounts, Justice Potter Stewart circulated an alternative opinion based on the narrower ground that that the DOJ had erred in advising the board that Ali was insincere and that his beliefs were not religious. Since the board could have reached its decision on those incorrect bases, there was no need to decide the harder question of selectivity. Stewart’s opinion persuaded a majority of his colleagues, who adopted it as the Court’s per curium (a brief opinion of the Court as a whole, rather than of any individual justice).

Justice Potter Stewart

On June 28, 1971, this day in history, the Court issued its decision in Clay v. United States, reversing the finding of the Selective Service System specific to the facts of Ali’s administrative proceedings. The Court thereby avoided, as Lederman notes somewhat wryly, deciding whether the theoretical prospect of participating in a “holy war” against Islam meant that members of the Nation of Islam were, or were not, “conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”

Meanwhile, in 2018, the notoriously uninformed President Donald Trump announced he was considering granting a posthumous pardon for Muhammad Ali, prompting a lawyer for his estate and family to say thanks, but no thanks: The boxing great had his criminal conviction overturned by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago.

You can find a thorough review of the case and events leading up to it as well as pertinent documents in the aforementioned history prepared for the Federal Judicial Center, here.

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