August 21, 2019 | 72° F

MEHTA: Supreme Court defies Constitution, God’s will

Opinion Column: Grass Roots

On Thursday, Feb. 7 at 10:12 p.m., Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray was executed in Alabama without an imam present in his execution chamber. Neither God nor justice was present that day. The time of Ray's execution was 10:12 p.m., but alas, it was not the time of his death. He died following a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court to deny Ray’s rights to have an imam present in the chamber with him. He died the moment this ruling came out. 

Following Ray’s conviction, he was the only guilty party — following the Supreme Court's ruling, there were two. The decision, which allowed Ray to die alone, hopelessly seeking spiritual solace, was a gross miscarriage of constitutional rights. Given this argument, we must stipulate to exclude three things: Ray’s crimes, my personal religious beliefs and my view on the death penalty are all immaterial. None of them regard the constitutionality of the First Amendment, nor do they fall in the scope of the arguments to come. 

The topic being discussed is that of the First Amendment — particularly, the Establishment Clause within it. This clause is seen in the first line of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This is the main point of contention within the dissent of Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Did the barring of the requested imam within the execution chamber, while simultaneously contending the chaplain associated with that of the Christian faith, constitute the favoritism of one religion over another? 

To put it simply, yes it did. The fact that this case had to go to the Supreme Court inherently fortifies the argument, as any Christian man would not have to be put under this duress. Any Christian man, like the five justices who voted to vacate Ray’s stay of execution, will never have to worry about this happening to them. 

The entire majority’s opinion rests on a single argument, coupled with a single citation. US 18A815 says, “Because Ray waited until Jan. 28, 2019 to seek relief, we grant the State’s application to vacate the stay entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.” The entire argument, in a decision which is a total of three pages — two of which are Kagan’s dissent — relies on that one line. A man died alone, scared and without God in the time he needed God most, based on a single sentence. These justices signed away something far worse than the jury did. They did not just take Ray’s life, they took his hope.  

“Under (Larson v. Valente), a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan said in her dissent. She continued to make the point that to surmount the burden of a religious discrimination claim, the state must prove a compelling interest. 

In my opinion, as well as in the opinion of Kagan and the dissenting justices, the state did not pass strict scrutiny in this particular instance. The failure to have done so, in conjunction with the ultimate decision delivered, can set dangerous precedent for cases of discrimination in the future. Kagan argued that if security was the issue in allowing the imam to enter the execution chamber, why could the state not simply provide the same training or vetting for Ray’s imam that the Christian chaplain received? Further, why could the imam not be put under oath, a violation of which would result in penalty, that he would not interfere with the execution? 

Kagan’s final arguments discussed the idea that there was not a significant amount of time that passed between Ray’s denial by the state to have an imam present, and his appeal a mere five days later. She attacked the vague wording the statute employed, Alabama Code Section 15–18–83(a) (2018), which does not specify whether the imam would be allowed within the chamber and notes the prison’s refusal to give Ray a copy of its typical procedures. 

The culmination of this was Kagan’s “respectful dissent,” which is the only point where I would be concurring, but not in full agreement. There is no respect to be given to the majority in this situation — their error in the employment of legal reasoning, and their haste in coming to this decision which ultimately resulted in the violation of the rights of a man being put to death — a two-page dissent truthfully does not do the weight of this event justice either. This was a gross miscarriage of justice, a dangerous precedent and a clear defiance of the Constitution from those who sit on the Supreme Court’s majority. 

Rishi Mehta is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and English. His column, "Grass Roots," runs on alternate Mondays.


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Rishi Mehta

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