The world can’t come up with enough superlatives to describe Muhammad Ali after his death this weekend. Even in his later years largely out of the public eye he remained a symbol of pure greatness. He was a champion in all facets of life.
Perhaps his most important victory, though, came outside of the boxing ring when he earned a unanimous 8-0 decision at the Supreme Court while challenging a criminal conviction for refusing to report for military duty during the Vietnam War draft.
In what would become a landmark case for conscientious objectors, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in favor of Ali, with Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining, in Clay v. U.S., 403 U.S. 698 (1971).
As the Court explained, conscientious objectors had to meet three criteria to avoid the draft:
He must show that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form. He must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief, as the term has been construed in our decisions. And he must show that this objection is sincere. In applying these tests, the Selective Service System must be concerned with the registrant as an individual, not with its own interpretation of the dogma of the religious sect, if any, to which he may belong.
Ali, who had changed his name from Cassius Clay and become a devout Muslim, applied for classification as a conscientious objector, which was denied. He then went to the Kentucky Appeal Board, which tentatively classified him eligible for unrestricted military service, and referred his file to the Justice Department. The Justice Department concluded, contrary to a hearing officer’s recommendation, that his claim should be denied. Subsequently, the Appeal Board denied Clay’s claim to be a conscientious objector, but without stating its reasons. When Clay refused to report, he was tried and convicted of willful refusal to submit to induction, which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
That is when Ali stepped into the most daunting ring for any citizen — the Supreme Court.
With the help of MLK’s attorney, Chauncey Eskridge, Ali convinced all eight sitting justices to overturn his conviction, which allowed him to avoid military service and eventually return to the ring.
The Supreme Court determined that Ali’s conviction was fundamentally flawed:
Since the Appeal Board gave no reasons for its denial of the petitioner’s claim, there is absolutely no way of knowing upon which of the three grounds offered in the Department’s letter it relied. Yet the Government now acknowledges that two of those grounds were not valid. And, the Government’s concession aside, it is indisputably clear, for the reasons stated, that the Department was simply wrong as a matter of law in advising that the petitioner’s beliefs were not religiously based and were not sincerely held.
As Chief Justice Hughes put the matter, ‘(I)t is impossible to say under which clause of the statute the conviction was obtained.’ Thus, ‘if any of the clauses in question is invalid under the Federal Constitution, the conviction cannot be upheld.’
Despite the sweeping decision, Ali was actually very close to losing his case. As the Constitution Daily detailed, the Justices were first set to rule against him:
Initially . . . the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-3 against Ali during a conference. Then the justice assigned to write the majority decision, John Marshall Harlan, changed his vote after a clerk gave him a book to read that made Ali’s religious convictions clear.
The book was reportedly The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, and Harlan realized Ali had deep-seated religious convictions that made him a true conscientious objector.
But that left the court divided at 4-4, and since Ali had lost his lower court appeal, he would lose the Supreme Court case. And the court’s rules would also leave Ali without an explanation for the court’s decision. The justices reconvened, since Ali was the best-known sports figure in the world. They wanted to provide an explanation. They worked toward a compromise that could at least detail the thoughts behind their decision . . . it was Justice Potter Stewart who looked at the case and convinced the other justices that the lower courts never explained why they turned down Ali’s appeals.
After losing his bid to regain his title from Joe Frazier in 1971, another loss at the Supreme Court could have dealt a finishing blow to Ali’s career.
However, whether through the fate of benefiting from an enterprising Supreme Court law clerk or the backing of Justice Stewart, Ali managed to pull out a victory as he so often did in everything he did. Ali went on to win 12 of his next 13 fights.
Despite his polarizing stances on many issues, Ali was never afraid to fight for his beliefs. It is that unwavering conviction he displayed in all aspects of his life that makes Ali truly one of the greatest to ever live.
Steve Silver is a former sports reporter for the Las Vegas Sun and is now a lawyer in Philadelphia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@thelegalblitz. Also a special thank you to fellow lawyer Dan Werly for the idea to write this column.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.