Ramirez v. Collier, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, et al., No. 21-5592. Oral argument set for November 9, 2021.
The Supreme Court will soon consider whether Petitioner Ramirez, sentenced to death for a capital crime, may prevail in his claim that the State of Texas’ has violated the Religious Land Use and Religious Persons Act by refusing Ramirez’s request that his spiritual advisor not only be present in the execution chamber but also be permitted to pray aloud and to lay hands on Ramirez during the execution.
RLUIPA was enacted after the Supreme Court concluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could not apply to the states. Both statutes provide protections for religious exercise that may exceed the guarantees of the First Amendment, by shifting burdens of proof and persuasion and by permitting latitude in what may be considered a religious exercise.
Thus a prisoner need not establish that a requested religious accommodation refers to a normative practice in any spiritual practice adhered to by the prisoner. The state, however, must establish not only that its practices support a compelling government interest and that the state has employed the least restrictive means in furtherance of that goal.
The presence of ministers in the death chamber has been permitted in Texas, in other states, and in the federal system. At this time, Texas’ rules and regulations appear not to preclude such a presence, but interpretive guidance, some apparently issued in response to Ramirez’ requests, rule out vocalization and laying on of hands during and following the administration of lethal injections.
On its face Ramirez’s request appears compelling and its denial cruel. What possible end could be served by denying a prisoner the solace of prayer and touch at death? Safety and security, says the state.
The state, through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice opines that past procedures permitting religious attention at execution were supported by safety protocols permitting state employees, not volunteers, to provide religious support. Sabotage and the creation of chaos in the execution room cannot be ruled out, the state argues, as such events are not without a basis in history and the likelihood of a disruptive occurrence is enhanced if a volunteer minister would be so close to the prisoner that the disruption of the flow of medication or to removal of needles or restraints.
Moreover, the state argues that its practices and prohibitions respect the dignity of the prisoner by permitting audio surveillance from outside the execution chamber of the administration of lethal substances and the dying process. Audible prayer would thwart that process, making it more likely that the state could not remediate the execution timely and enhancing the chance of an agonizing death.
Religious advocacy groups and scholars of religious freedoms have aligned with Ramirez, particularly in service of precluding interpretations of RLUIPA that would permit accommodations only if the state were affirmatively precluding a recognized religious practice.
Several states have asserted that the states must be deferred to in fashioning acceptable execution chamber protocols. The states fear a flood tide of litigation intended only to forestall executions, all in defiance of the Prison’ Litigation Reform Act, which would hamstring the state in administering sentences, thereby undermining the criminal justice system and principles of federalism.
The United States has urged the Supreme Court to remand the case for resolution, particularly for further articulation of the parties’ interests.
Joining in advocating for bringing to a conclusion Ramirez’ litigation are the survivors of Carlos Ramos, who died after having been stabbed twenty-nine times by the Petitioner. Ramos’ children, now grown, ask that the Court not be unmindful that at each stage of litigation the trauma of their loss is revived. The Ramos family asks how it is that media attention appears to cast Ramirez as heroic, where their father was denied a sacramental death.
JustLawful note: This comment omits consideration of the exhaustion of remedies argument that is also presented in this case.
JustLawful Comment: Leaving aside the flood tides of dilatory claims, administration of justice, and federalism questions, which are not insignificant, it is difficult to believe that the requested ministerial presence and prayer and touch practices could not be accommodated through prison protocols protecting the interests of all. “Accommodation” by definition suggests that each party yield — by inches if not by yards — to the other. The parties seem disinclined toward such a perspective, yet the Court may order remand in furtherance of such a result, which would likewise aid the Court in avoiding unnecessary decisions.
Amicus Submissions in Support of Petitioner Ramirez
Amicus Submissions in Support of the Respondents
Amicus Submissions in Support of Neither Party