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

 

No Longer Wrong, No Further Rights: RLUIPA Complaint Moot Following Settlement Between Islamic Center and County Government

United States v. County of Culpeper, No. 3:16-cv-00083 (W.D. Va.) September 1, 2017.

The federal government and the Islamic Center of Culpeper, Virginia both initiated federal litigation against the Culpeper County government to vindicate violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The Islamic Center of Culpeper, seeking to construct a new facility, alleged that the county added bureaucratic hoops and subsequently denied a permit routinely granted to others.  This occurred in the context of objections to the project to which local officials expressed concern about bias.

Culpeper County and the Islamic Center settled:  the permit was awarded, a promise that further permitting would not be hindered was made, and  were awarded.  The county undertook remedial measures by posting non-discrimination notices, including non-discrimination provisions in contract documents, and training staff in fair practices. The parties agreed that redress in federal court could be sought in case of any violation of the agreement.

The federal district court for the Western District of Virginia dismissed the federal government’s’ case as moot, declining continued federal presence to assert undefined “broader’ relief than that already agreed upon or to permit the federal government to monitor any assumed but unproved bad faith on Culpeper County’s part.  Where the private and federal cases against the county made the same claims and complete and enforceable relief had been attained, and the policy changes instituted by the county met the safe harbor provisions of RLUIPA, precluding judgment against it.

Where only injunctive and declaratory relief could be sought by the federal government, the federal district court lacked continuing subject matter jurisdiction of the federal government’s claims.  Mootness, the court opined, exists where no order the court could fashion could afford relief:  any declaration that the law had been violated would be retrospective and impermissible as advisory.

The presence of an enforceable settlement agreement and the provision of remedial measures addressing religious discriminationn precludes as moot the continued involvement of the fedeeral government in the federal courts relating to the very same matter against the county.

While this result appears facially straightforward, and while it is not known whether appellate review will be sought, the court’s opinion does intimate a refusal to permit the federal government, by means of retained federal court jurisdiction, to assume the role of ongoing monitor of settled claims.  It may be that the mootness rationales advanced by the trial court will be employed in other cases to inhibit the federal government from lingering in court, hovering over local governments “just in case” review appears desirable.

u.s. v. culpeper county w.d. va. 20170901