This Report summarizes opinions issued on March 23, 24, and 31, and April 4, 2022 (Part I); and cases granted review on March 28, 2022 (Part II).
Opinion: Ramirez v. Collier, 21-5592
Ramirez v. Collier, 21-5592. By an 8-1 vote, the Court held that a prisoner facing execution would likely succeed on his claim that he had a right, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), to have his pastor audibly pray over, and “lay hands” on, him during this execution. A Texas jury sentenced John Ramirez to death for his brutal murder of a convenience store employee in 2004. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Ramirez’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal, and his attempts to collaterally attack his conviction in state and federal court were unsuccessful. Less than a week before his scheduled execution date in 2017, Ramirez moved to stay his execution in federal court, arguing that the performance of his habeas counsel had been constitutionally deficient. Although the district court granted a stay, it rejected Ramirez’s claim and the Fifth Circuit declined to issue a certificate of appealability. Ramirez’s execution was rescheduled for September 9, 2020. At that time, Ramirez requested that his pastor be able to accompany him into the execution chamber. This request was denied pursuant to a policy that barred all spiritual advisors from the chamber. (This policy had been recently enacted in light of a 2019 Supreme Court case, Murphy v. Collier, in which the Court stayed a Buddhist inmate’s execution unless the state allowed a Buddhist advisor into the execution chamber.) Ramirez then filed suit, alleging a violation of RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Although Ramirez stated that he wanted his pastor to be present and pray with him in the execution chamber, he explained that his pastor “need not touch” him. After Texas withdrew the death certificate, the parties agreed to dismiss the litigation without prejudice.
In February 2021, Ramirez received a new execution date of September 8, 2021. Ramirez then filed a prison grievance requesting his pastor’s presence in the execution chamber. Although prison officials again denied the request, they later reconsidered after changing the execution protocols to allow spiritual advisors in the execution chamber. On June 11, 2021, Ramirez filed another grievance, requesting that his pastor be able to “lay hands” on him and “pray over” him during the execution. Prison officials denied this request on the basis that spiritual advisors were not allowed to touch an inmate during the execution process. On July 8, Ramirez appealed this denial through the prison grievance process. With less than a month to go before his scheduled execution date, and with no response from the prison, on August 10 Ramirez filed suit in federal court, seeking an injunction prohibiting his execution unless his pastor was allowed to “lay hands” on him. On August 16, Ramirez’s attorney inquired whether the pastor would be allowed to pray audibly during the execution; prison officials responded that he would not. So on August 22 Ramirez filed an amended complaint seeking an injunction (and stay of execution) allowing his pastor to both touch him and pray audibly. The district court and the Fifth Circuit denied relief. The Supreme Court then stayed Ramirez’s execution and granted certiorari, but only as to Ramirez’s RLUIPA claim (and not his Free Exercise claim). In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court reversed and remanded.
The Court began by rejecting Texas’s argument that Ramirez failed to properly exhaust his claims under the Texas inmate grievance process, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The Court concluded that Ramirez had complied with every step of that process: (1) he unsuccessfully attempted to resolve the issue informally with a prison chaplain; (2) he filed a Step 1 grievance requesting that his pastor be allowed to “lay hands” on him and “pray over” him during the execution, which was denied; and (3) he timely appealed that denial, again asserting his request for touching and prayer. The Court rejected the assertion that Ramirez had not properly exhausted his claim because he had filed suit before the prison ruled on his appeal. The Court concluded that Ramirez’s subsequent filing of his amended complaint cured any defect. The Court also rejected the notion that Ramirez had failed to properly exhaust his request for prayer because he did not specify a need for “audible” prayer, instead concluding that Ramirez’s request to “pray over” him encompassed such a request.
On the merits, the Court ruled that prison officials’ denial of Ramirez’s requests likely violated RLUIPA. RLUIPA provides that “[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government” satisfies strict scrutiny. The Court first found that Ramirez would likely succeed in proving the sincerity of his religious beliefs, noting that laying of hands and prayer during an execution are traditional forms of religious exercise. In making that finding, the Court excused the fact that Ramirez had, in a request relating to a prior religious protocol, disclaimed any need for his pastor to touch him. Although the Court acknowledged that this was probative of his sincerity, the Court stated that the circumstances of that complaint, which was dismissed without prejudice and by agreement one week after it was filed, did not outweigh other evidence of his sincerity.
The Court then found that Ramirez would likely succeed in establishing that the government had failed to prove that its blanket refusal to accommodate his requests was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest. As to audible prayer, the Court began by recounting the “rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution.” This history, the Court found, not only “dat[ed] back to well before the founding of our Nation,” but continued to be practiced in some states and in recent federal executions. Against this backdrop, the Court rejected the rationales that Texas had advanced in support of its categorical ban on audible prayer. Although it acknowledged Texas’s concern that audible prayer might impede prison officials’ ability to monitor aspects of the execution, the Court found that a complete ban on prayer was not the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest, especially given Texas’s past practice of allowing prayer (as well as in light of the experience of other jurisdictions). The Court also rejected Texas’s assertion that a ban on prayer was necessary to prevent a spiritual advisor from using the opportunity to make a statement to officials or witnesses. Although that was a legitimate concern in the abstract, the Court noted that there was no evidence in the record that Ramirez’s pastor would cause any such disruption. Finally, the Court identified several less restrictive ways to handle such concerns: limiting the volume of the prayer, requiring silence during critical parts of the execution, and subjecting spiritual advisors to immediate removal for infractions.
Similarly, the Court determined that the prison officials did not meet the least-restrictive-means standard as to religious touching. The Court agreed with Texas that religious touching implicated three compelling governmental interests: security in the execution chamber, preventing unnecessary suffering, and avoiding further emotional trauma to the victim’s family members. But, as with audible prayer, a categorical ban was not the least restrictive means of furthering those interests. The Court explained that prison officials could impose various restrictions, such as providing training, restricting the timeframe during which touching would be allowed, and allowing the touching to occur only on a part of the body, such as the leg, that was far removed from the injection site.
Because the case reached the Court on a motion for preliminary injunction, the Court examined the equities and concluded that Ramirez was likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief because he would be unable to engage in protected religious exercise in the final moments of his life. The Court also noted that the balance of equities favored Ramirez because, rather than seeking an open-ended stay of execution, he sought merely a tailored injunction relating to how the execution would be conducted. The Court rejected the argument that Ramirez had engaged in inequitable conduct by waiting until just weeks before his execution to file suit. The Court noted that a significant reason for that delay was that, although Ramirez had appealed his grievance, the prison officials waited nearly 40 days to deny that appeal. The Court ended with two points. The Court admonished prison officials that timely resolution of RLUIPA claims could be facilitated if states were to adopt policies anticipating and addressing issues likely to arise. This would include both enacting reasonable rules on the time for prisoners to request religious accommodations and drafting specific guidelines governing any restrictions on the presence of spiritual advisors in the execution chamber. The Court also noted that, because this case arose in the posture of a preliminary injunction, the case would be remanded for further proceedings, and prison officials would have the opportunity to shed additional light on Texas’s interests, and whether its policies are narrowly tailored. The Court cautioned, however, that such proceedings might also contribute to additional delay, and that Texas would “have to determine where its interest lies in going forward.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to address the interaction between the PLRA and prison officials’ obligations to set clear rules governing execution protocols. Although she agreed with the Court that Ramirez had properly exhausted his administrative remedies in this case, Justice Sotomayor argued that, in order to be an “available” remedy under the PLRA in the execution context, prison officials must ensure that (1) inmates are timely informed of relevant protocols, and (2) the administrative process moves quickly enough to permit exhaustion with sufficient time to seek judicial review if necessary.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately to raise three points. First, Justice Kavanaugh distinguished between the religious discrimination claim that was at issue in Murphy, which was “easy for the States to apply,” and the religious liberty claim raised here, which implicates a more complicated balancing of interests. Second, Justice Kavanaugh noted that the balancing in this case was especially difficult because it required the Court to weigh the benefits of accommodating Ramirez’s religious liberty against the risks of disruption of the execution process. Justice Kavanaugh noted, however, that this balancing of interests could be informed by history and state practice, which in this case had shown that spiritual advisors had accompanied prisoners into the execution chamber and engaged in limited touching and audible prayer “without apparent problems.” Finally, Justice Kavanaugh suggested, as a practical matter, that states seeking to avoid future litigation delays should make reasonable efforts to accommodate a capital prisoner’s request for the presence and participation of their spiritual advisor (so long as compelling interests in safety, security, and solemnity are not sacrificed).
Justice Thomas dissented in an opinion that mostly addressed exhaustion. Justice Thomas argued that, prior to bringing his RLUIPA suit, Ramirez had engaged in meritless postconviction litigation designed primarily to delay his execution, and that Ramirez’s actions in this case should be interpreted in light of that history. Justice Thomas noted that Ramirez had initially disclaimed any need for his pastor to be able to touch him, only to reverse course once Texas acquiesced in his request for the pastor merely to be present. And, with respect to the request for audible prayer, Justice Thomas argued that Ramirez failed to properly raise this claim in the Texas administrative grievance process. As to the merits of the touching claim, Justice Thomas asserted that Ramirez was not entitled to relief because his previous disclaimer of any need for touching undercut his claim that his request was “sincerely based on a religious belief.” Justice Thomas criticized the majority for relying on the notion that touching was a “traditional” belief, noting that a RLUIPA claim must be centered on the subjective views of the prisoner.
[Editor’s note: Some of the language in the background section of the summary above was taken from the petition for writ of certiorari and brief in opposition.]