Muhammad Ali's Conscientious Objector Case
That day never came for my family, and Cassius Clay, having defeated the thug with alleged mob ties, Sonny Liston, emerged as the world heavyweight champion with a new name: Muhammad Ali. In the years that followed, Ali's defense of his championship belt would be staged in other countries -who could forget "Thrilla in Manila"- because the boxer was no longer sanctioned to fight in the United States.
Ali's troubles arose when he filed for "conscientious objector" status through his local draft board in Louisville, Kentucky in 1967. He stated that he was not dodging the draft but that the war violated the teachings of the Koran to which he adhered and that Islam only recognized "just wars" and the Vietnam War was not a just war. Ali was famously quoted as saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong..."
When the local draft board denied Ali's request, he moved to Texas and asserted he was a Muslim cleric; this claim was rejected prompting Ali to appear when summoned to report for induction into the armed forces. He refused to step forward when his name was called leading to his prosecution.
When Ali was prosecuted by the United States Attorney through the Department of Justice, he brought the matter to a jury trial at the conclusion of which he was convicted by an all-white jury.
Sentenced to five years in prison, Ali filed an appeal that went all the way to the SCOTUS, breathing free air on bond the entire time. Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case on grounds that he was the United States Solicitor General when the case started.
Muhammad Ali's religious convictions were no more persuasive than many of the other litigants that attempted to avoid military service based on religious grounds. The SCOTUS, however, ruled in Ali's favor in June 1971 because the draft board rejected Ali's request for conscientious objector status without stating its reasons or rationale. Because the SCOTUS could not determine the basis for the draft board's state action, and because two of the three grounds for denial of conscientious objector status already had been stipulated as unconstitutional, the High Court held 4-4 that Ali's conviction was reversed.
As appellate practitioners here at the Law Blogger, we have been involved in many decisions where a trial court or administrative tribunal neglects to state its reasons for a ruling. On appeal, especially in a High Court, such rulings are routinely struck.
Muhammad Ali was known for many things inside and outside the boxing ring. When he was vindicated by the SCOTUS, he was empowered to continue being the brash superstar that by then he had become.