Clergy in the Chamber

In 2004, Pablo Castro, working the night shift at a convenience store in Corpus Christi, was brutally stabbed to death by a robber seeking drug money. John Ramirez stabbed Mr. Castro 29 times. He and his cohorts netted $1.25 from Mr. Castro’s pockets as he lay bleeding to death in the store parking lot.

The U.S. Supreme Court today decided that the murderer can further delay his well deserved and long overdue execution by litigating a dubious claim regarding the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and audibly pray over his while he is being executed.

There is a sign of hope in that the decision depends a lot on the specifics of the procedure in this case. States may have the capacity to avoid stays of execution in the future.

There was much confusion about clergy in the chamber at the time that Texas was preparing to execute Ramirez, and the Supreme Court itself bears a heavy share of the blame. Deciding important questions by summary decisions, it led states to believe that excluding clergy from the chamber altogether was an acceptable resolution to the claim that religions with prison chaplains were being preferred over those without. That said, the state could have handled the situation better than it did.

What about the future? The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act requires exhaustion of administrative remedies before turning to the courts. With practices for accommodation of clergy stabilizing, a good system for requiring complaints well in advance and making accommodations where they are actually minor will help block lawsuits.

The anti-death-penalty crowd is no doubt salivating over the expanding possibilities for delaying executions. But today’s opinion includes a warning to lower courts:

If States adopt clear rules in advance, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts. If such cases do arise and a court determines that relief is appropriate under RLUIPA, the proper remedy is an injunction ordering the accommodation, not a stay of the execution. This approach balances the State’s interest in carrying out capital sentences without delay and the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise.

If experience is any guide, federal judges whose modus operandi is to decide against execution first and then back in the reasoning to support that predetermined outcome will evade or even disregard that italicized language. There are a lot of them. The Supreme Court will be called upon to confirm that it really means it in last-minute applications by states to vacate injunctions that are stays of execution on their face or in practice.

And no, Mr. Chief Justice, they won’t be “rare.”