Clay V. United States - Opinion of The Court

Opinion of The Court

The Court held that, since the Appeal Board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, and it is impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department's letter that board relied, Ali's conviction must be reversed.

Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong provide an account of the development of the decision in their book The Brethren. According to that account, Justice Marshall had recused himself because he had been U.S. Solicitor General when the case began, and the remaining eight justices initially voted 5 to 3 to uphold Ali's conviction. However, Justice Harlan, assigned to write the majority opinion, became convinced that Ali's claim to be a conscientious objector was sincere after reading background material on Black Muslim doctrine provided by one of his law clerks. To the contrary, Justice Harlan concluded that the claim by the Justice Department had been a misrepresentation. Harlan changed his vote, tying the vote at 4 to 4. A deadlock would have resulted in Ali being jailed for draft evasion and, since no opinions are published for deadlocked decisions, he would have never known why he had lost. A compromise proposed by Justice Stewart, in which Ali's conviction would be reversed citing a technical error by the Justice Department, gradually won unanimous assent from the eight voting justices.

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