Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, December 2, 2013

HBO Puts a Spin on Clay v. United States

If you subscribe to HBO, you might find Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight a very interesting movie to watch.  Besides the fact that it chronicles, in part, the sometimes politically-controversial boxing career of Cassius Clay Muhammad Ali,  it takes a look inside the deliberations behind Ali's court fight against being drafted into to U.S. Military.  

The case Clay v. United States begins with Clay losing an administrative appeal.  While Clay argued that he met one or more elements of the 3-part test (1. that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form, 2. that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief, and 3. that this objection is sincere) used to determine whether an individual's objection to being drafted is afforded religious freedom protection, the Justice Department, then headed by Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, believed that his objection was rooted in political rather than religious ideology.   As such, he was tried and convicted of willfully refusing to be drafted.  After losing on appeal, the case finds its way to the Supreme Court.

By the time the case arrives on the Court's doorsteps, Thurgood Marshall is now a Justice and, due to his involvement at the beginning of the case, recuses himself.  The movie uses this as an opportunity to showcase Justice Marshall as a proponent of integration and a believer that Muhammad Ali is promoting a segregationist agenda as a member of the Nation of Islam (black Muslims).  

The movie also dramatizes the inner workings of the Supreme Court.  The movie follows a seemingly fictional and liberal-minded law clerk championing the Court's consideration of hearing the Clay case.  The law clerk, from Missouri Law, is met with opposition from not just John Harlan, the Justice supervising him, but also from elitist and more conservative fellow law clerks with higher pedigrees from Harvard, Yale and Columbia Law.  

Initially there is great opposition to hearing the case, but eventually the Court agrees.  After oral argument, the Justices seem to be headed towards a 5-3 decision affirming the conviction.  However, the protagonist law clerk does some exhaustive research, finds a case that seems to mirror the premise in the Clay case but involves the Jewish faith, and then approaches Justice Harlan with a draft of an opinion in favor of Clay - regardless of the 5-3 decision and the fact that John Harlan had charged the law clerk with drafting an opinion against Clay.  After looking at the possible racial impact of a decision against Clay and the Muslim religion when the facts seem to suggest that his conscientious objector argument should be successful, the Justices eventually reverse course and come to terms on how to carry out issuing an 8-0 decision.  The last twist to the movie chronicles how they crafted the decision so that it would not create precedent, but would be narrowly construed to the facts presented.  Specifically, since the Appeals Board issued its decision without clearly articulating the grounds for the decision (which elements of the conscientious objector test Clay failed to meet), the Court ruled that such an ambiguous conviction could not stand.  

The movie is interesting in how it shows the "case behind the case."  Watching the deliberations of the Justices, the jockeying of the law clerks and their role in influencing the minds on the Court, and the politics that came into play in what should be a non-political judicial branch was fascinating.  It really makes one think about the fact that advocates need to focus on not just persuading the panel of neutrals, but also must keep an eye towards how to influence the law clerks and the other people with political, social, or other interests in the case outcome.  

If you get the opportunity, do take time to watch this movie.  It will be time well spent.

Current Affairs, Film | Permalink


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