Supreme Court Weighs Condemned Man’s Wish for Pastor’s Touch

A Texas death row inmate, John H. Ramirez, asked the justices to let spiritual advisers pray with and lay hands on prisoners as they await execution.


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WASHINGTON — A Texas inmate’s request that his pastor be able to touch him and pray aloud with him in the death chamber met a mixed reception on Tuesday at the Supreme Court.

Some justices said the request was a modest one that respected the inmate’s right to exercise his faith in his final moments.

“You should have a pastor to help guide you to the other place,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

But other members of the court worried about their competence to supervise execution protocols, to judge the sincerity of inmates’ religious convictions, to prevent litigation gamesmanship and to handle what Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said could become “an unending stream” of lawsuits requesting all sorts of religious accommodations.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked about requests to have more than one spiritual adviser in the execution chamber and about last-minute conversions to new faiths. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh asked about a request for “bread and wine in the execution room.” Justice Alito worried that judges would be required “to go through the whole human anatomy” to decide where touching was permitted.

Seth Kretzer, a lawyer for the inmate, John H. Ramirez, said it was Texas’ protocol that was a moving target, as the state had allowed touching and audible prayer by spiritual advisers at 572 executions over four decades through 2019.

Justice Kavanaugh said “that does not move me at all,” as the chaplains at those executions were prison employees and thus not a security risk.

Mr. Ramirez was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of a convenience store worker. Mr. Ramirez stabbed the worker, Pablo Castro, 29 times in a robbery that yielded pocket change.

In prison, Mr. Ramirez forged a relationship with Dana Moore, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Mr. Ramirez asked that his pastor be allowed to touch him and pray out loud with him as he dies.

When prison officials rejected his request, citing security concerns, Mr. Ramirez sued, saying the policy violated his right to exercise his faith at the moment when, as his lawyer put it in a brief, “most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell — in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.”

An execution, Justice Kavanaugh said, is “a very fraught situation with a lot of potential for issues.”

Mr. Kretzer responded that there was “not a single example in history” of a spiritual adviser interfering with an execution.

Justice Elena Kagan asked Judd E. Stone II, Texas’ solicitor general, if he was “aware in any other states of an execution going astray because of an outside spiritual adviser.” Mr. Stone said no.

Eric J. Feigin, a lawyer for the federal government who argued in support of neither side, drew distinctions that seemed to appeal to some of the justices. He said audible prayers from spiritual advisers were common at recent federal executions, but touching was rare and should not be allowed once the lethal chemicals were being administered.

Federal prison authorities, he said, “would have very, very substantial concerns about that because of the risk of either advertent or inadvertent disruption of the IV lines.”

“Someone could faint, someone could stumble, and you could jostle the lines,” he said.

Mr. Kretzer said it would suffice to let Mr. Moore touch Mr. Ramirez’s foot.

Understand the Supreme Court’s Momentous Term

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The Texas abortion law. After the court let Texas effectively outlaw most abortions in a 5-4 decision, the justices heard arguments that could allow it to reverse course. The case puts Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the spotlight as the most likely member to switch sides.

The Mississippi abortion case. The court is poised to use a challenge to a Mississippi law that bars most abortions after 15 weeks to undermine and perhaps overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

A major decision on guns. The justices will consider the constitutionality of a longstanding New York law that imposes strict limits on carrying guns in public. The court has not issued a major Second Amendment ruling in more than a decade.

A test for Chief Justice Roberts. The highly charged docket will test the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who lost his position at the court’s ideological center with the arrival last fall of Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

A drop in public support. Chief Justice Roberts now leads a court increasingly associated with partisanship. Recent polls show the court is suffering a distinct drop in public support following a spate of unusual late-night summer rulings in politically charged cases.

Justice Alito said other prisoners would have different requests. “What’s going to happen,” he asked, “when the next prisoner says that I have a religious belief that he should touch my knee? He should hold my hand? He should put his hand over my heart? He should be able to put his hand on my head?”

Justice Alito noted that the Supreme Court has taken a variety of approaches to suits in which death row inmates asked that their spiritual advisers be present to comfort them during their last minutes. The new case, Ramirez v. Collier, No. 21-5592, was, he said, only the latest elaboration.

“We have had a whole series of stay applications that present issues that are related to the one that is presented here, and each one has been different,” he told Mr. Kretzer. “And what you have said so far suggests to me that we can look forward to an unending stream of variations.”

In 2019, for instance, the court allowed by a 5-to-4 vote the execution of an Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray, a Muslim whose request that his imam be present had been denied. At the time, Alabama allowed only a Christian chaplain employed by the prison system to offer spiritual guidance to condemned inmates during their last moments.

A few weeks later, the court confronted a similar case from Texas and came to a different conclusion, staying the execution of a Buddhist inmate whose request that his spiritual adviser be present in the execution chamber had been denied.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh wrote that states could exclude advisers of all denominations from the execution chamber, but may not allow only some to be present.

Alabama responded by excluding all spiritual advisers from the death chamber. In February, the Supreme Court nonetheless let stand a ruling that halted the execution of an Alabama inmate, Willie B. Smith III, a Christian, unless the state allowed his pastor to be present in the death chamber.

“Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security,” Justice Kagan wrote for four justices in a concurring opinion. “So the state cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present, to ease what Smith calls the ‘transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.'”

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