Last Rights:  Supreme Court Concludes Death Row Inmate May Succeed in Asserting Undue Burden of His Religious Exercise Because State Denied Request for Minister’s Presence, Audible Prayer, and Touch During Execution 

Ramirez v. Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, No. 21-5592, 595 U.S. ____ (March 24, 2022).  Opinion awarding petitioner Ramirez injunctive relief, reversing the decision of the Fifth Circuit affirming denial of a stay of execution, and remanding the case for further proceedings.


In 2004, John Ramirez stabbed Corpus Christi convenience store worker Pablo Castro twenty-nine times, an act that killed Castro and yielded $1.25 for Ramirez and his accomplice.

 

Ramirez fled the United States, but was apprehended near the Mexican border several years later, then was convicted of murder in the course of roberty, a capital offense.

 

Ramirez has assiduously yet unsuccessfully sought relief from his conviction.

 

Ramirez has sought to stay his execution because the State of Texas has denied him the presence of his spiritual advisor during his execution to provide audible prayer and to touch Ramirez during administration of lethal injections.  

 

Texas has promulgated several policies concerning the presence of religious advisors during executions. Although at times Texas has precluded all spiritual advisors from being present in the execution chamber, Texas has revised its protocols to permit the presence of spiritual advisors in the execution chamber.  

 

Ramirez grieved the state’s denial of his request that his spiritual advisor be permitted to pray aloud and to lay hands on Ramirez during Ramirez’s execution.  

 

Ramirez asked the United States Supreme Court to preliminarily enjoin the state from executing him prior to resolution of his claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA).

 

RLUIPA provides religious free exercise protections that, because of the act’s procedural structure, may be more adventitious to claimants than First Amendment claims.  RLUIPA requires the state to demonstrate that a substantial burden on the exercise of a sincere religious belief must meet “strict scrutiny” standards even if the law in question is one of general applicability.  

 

The Supreme Court in Ramirez’s case perceives that Ramirez’s request that his pastor be present, pray audibly, and lay hands on him as he is executed reflects a sincerely held religious belief.

 

The Court has concluded that Texas cannot substantiate its revocation of the time honored practice of vocal prayer because, as Texas asserts, there exists a compelling government interest in being able to minotaur sound within the execution chamber, which, the state posits could be hampered by audible prayer.  

 

The Court agreed that the interest exists but the state had not shown that a categorical ban on all audible prayer in the execution chamber is the least restrictive means of advancing that interest. 

 

Similarly, the Court acknowledged that Texas has a compelling interest in avoiding disruption in the execution chamber.  However, the Court found that because there exists in this case no indication that disruption might occur, a hypothesized fear could not meet the state’s burden. 

 

By tailor making the execution to suit the prisoner’s needs and to permit monitoring, to limit touch to areas that would not interfere with the procedure,  and to avoid disruption, the minister could be permitted to address the inmate only, subject to immediate removal upon any failure to comply with the rules.  These measures are less restrictive means through which Texas might advance the state’s interest.

 

Having concluded that Ramirez is likely to succeed on the merits of his case, the Court next concluded that if the Court failed to provide injunctive relief that Ramire would suffer irreparable harm, as he would be barred from exercising his faith in the last moments of his life. 

 

The public interest will not be harmed by granting relief in this case, as Ramirez does not seek an indefinite stay, and there is a strong public interest – as evidenced by the enactment of RLUIPA – in ensuring that prisoners subject to execution are not concomitantly subjected to undue burdens on their religious exercise. 

 

The Court dismissed Texas’s argument that Ramirez’s inequitable conduct should bar injunctive relief.  In the Court’s assessment, Ramirez has diligently asserted and pursued his claim and has not made a late claim on long known facts to manipulate or to cause delay rather than to seek redress. 

 

As RLUIPA claims are case specific, the Court has urged the states to adopt policies to address claims through a reasonable request process as well as to provide procedural training for spiritual advisors. 

 

As Ramirez succeeded in persuading the court that he is worthy of injunctive relief, the decision of the Fifth Circuit has been reversed, and the case has been remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.

 

Matters Would Go Better if All Played Their Parts Better.  Justice Sotomayor, having joined in the opinion, has written separately to emphasize that both inmate and prisons administration must comply with not only RLUIPA, but also, with particular emphasis on the prison’s obligations, with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).  All concerned, but especially Institutions administering process and procedures, must ensure that redress is available and accessible and that delay not be permitted to frustrate proceedings unduly.  

 

Accommodate, Don’t Litigate.  Justice Kavanaguh concurred separately, noting the emergence of religious exercise and religious equality claims in death penalty case, and commenting upon the difficulties the Court faces in defining not only conpelling interest but also refining the relative restrictivess of measure os addressing compelling interests.

 

Justice Kavanaugh urged the states to realize that much could be accomplished and a good deal of harm could be avoided if the states were to accommodate inmenat’s requests where it is possible to do so without sacrificing the states’ “compelling interests in safety, security, and solemnity,” as so doing would avoid litigation and aid in bringing closure to victims’ families. 

 

Doubting (Justice) Thomas. Justice Thomas dissented from the Court’s opinion, citing not only the violent nature of Ramirez’s crime, but also his evasion of responsibility, and what Justice Thoams perceived to be a strategic change in position to achieve delay.

 

Justice Thomas noted that Ramirez’s engagement in delay and manipulation has frustrated the state’s and the public’s interests in how justice ought to be served.  Moreover, Ramirez has caused repeated injury to victims, as each time a date of execution has been set, Ramirez has evaded it. 

 

Although Ramirez did not engage in a last minute flurry of filing claims, he did engage in piecemeal and persistent pursuit of claims, changing tactics as needed to seek his goal:  delay. 

 

Neither strategy is more or less inequitable than the other, in Justice Thomas’s view.

 

Justice Thomas found no merit in the view that Ramirez’s advancing a claim relating to a ‘traditional’ religions ritual supports the conclusion that is claim is sincere, particularly as the orthodoxy of a practice has no bearing on First Amendment protection.

 

Justice Thomas found Ramirez’s failure to comply with the Prison Litigation REform Act (PLRA) is fatal to his bid for relief before the Supreme Court.  Ramirez was obliged to, but did not, engage in informal resolution of his audible prayer claim nor did he mention the audible prayer claim in his grievance, precluding the state’s adjudication of his claim.  

 

21-5592 Ramirez v. Collier (03_24_2022)

 

Ramirez v Collier 10 F4th 561Mem 5th Cir 2021

 

At the Hour of Our Death: Supreme Court to Consider Prisoner’s Plea for Prayer and Touch in Execution Chamber


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.


Case Materials:

Brief of Petitioner Ramirez September 27, 2021

Brief for Respondents October 15, 2021

Reply Brief For Petitioner October 25, 2021

Ramirez v. Collier Joint Appendix Vol. I

Amicus Submissions in Support of Petitioner Ramirez

Amicus First Liberty Institute September 27, 2021

Amicus Scholars of the PLRA and Prison Grievance Systems September 27, 2021

Amicus The United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops September 27, 2021

Amicus Religious Liberty Scholars September 27, 2021

Amicus Becket Fund for Religious Liberty September 27, 2021

Amicus Christian Legal Society, et al. September 27, 2021

Amicus Spiritual Advisors and Former Corrections Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Former Prison Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Alliance Defending Freedom September 27, 2021

Amicus Protect the First Foundation September 27, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of the Respondents

Amicus Arizona, et al. in Support of Respondents October 15, 2021

Amicus Pablo Castro’s Children October 15, 2021

Amicus Criminal Justice Legal Foundation October 15, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of Neither Party

Amicus the United States September 27, 2021

Amicus Freedom from Religion Foundation et al. September 27, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

The Preacher Talked to Me and He Smiled: Supreme Court Upholds Injunction Permitting Minister’s Presence at Alabama Prisoner’s Execution

Commissioner v. Smith, No. 20A128, 592 U.S. ____ (February 11, 2021).


Justice Kagan, with three others, has opined that Alabama failed to meet the strict scrutiny test applicable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Alabama’s global prohibition on ministerial presence at execution substantially burdens a prisoner’s religious exercise, and Alabama failed to demonstrate that this preclusion is the least restrictive means of advancing the compelling state interest in prison security.  As such, the injunction permitting the prisoner to have a religious presence at execution is proper and will not be dissolved.

Justice Thomas, without writing separately,  would have granted the petition to dissolve the injunction.

Justice Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts would grant the petition as reflecting a non-discriminatory policy, but would encourage states to implement measures that would fulfill requests such as the inmate’s here and thereby avoid protracted litigation. 

 

Commissioner v. Smith, 20a128, 592 U.S.__(February 11, 2021)