In the fourth post in our series of collaborative posts with New South Wales Young Lawyers’ International Law Committee, Robert Size examines Muhammad Ali’s brush with the rule of law.


A key principle of the rule of law is that ‘the law is applied equally and fairly, so that no one is above the law’. The death of Muhammad Ali two months ago made me reflect upon this principle. Without it, Ali may never have rumbled in the jungle. He may never have reclaimed the world heavyweight title that was taken from him when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He may have spent more of his best years out of the ring and caught up in court or even locked in jail.

This article examines the 1971 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States of America in Clay v United States. This is the decision that overturned Ali’s conviction for evading the Vietnam draft. Ali’s story and the Court’s reasoning demonstrate two things. The first is the way in which those in positions of power can conspire to undermine the rule of law. The second is the way in which the rule of law can come to the rescue when power is placed in the hands of those with the integrity to uphold it.


Resisting the draft

Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior was classified as eligible for military service in February 1966. By this time he had become a member of the Nation of Islam and taken the name Muhammad Ali. He was also the boxing heavyweight champion of the world.

Ali declared that he would refuse to serve in the United States Armed Forces and applied for classification as a conscientious objector. When his application was denied by the local draft board, he appealed to the Kentucky State Appeal Board. The Appeal Board referred his file to the Department of Justice for an advisory recommendation.

The Department of Justice appointed a retired judge to conduct a hearing on the ‘character and good faith’ of Ali’s objections. This judge heard testimony from Ali’s parents, from one of his lawyers, from a minister of his religion, and from Ali himself. He also had the benefit of a full FBI report into Ali’s objections that had been prepared prior to the hearing.

The judge concluded that Ali was sincere in his objection to participation in war on religious grounds and recommended that his conscientious objector claim be sustained. But the Department of Justice ignored his recommendation. It wrote a letter to the Appeal Board advising it to reject Ali’s claim because he didn’t meet the three required legal criteria discussed below. The Appeal Board then denied Ali’s claim without providing him with a statement of its reasons.

When Ali was ordered to report for induction in 1967 he refused to take the traditional step forward when his name was read out. As a result he was convicted of draft evasion by the District Court for the Southern District of Texas. An all-white jury imposed the maximum sentence: five years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. At the same time, he was also suspended from boxing, stripped of his title and forced to surrender his passport.

Ali appealed to Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit but that court affirmed his conviction.

He then appealed to the Supreme Court.


At the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court upheld his appeal.

First, it set out the elements that an applicant had to satisfy in order to qualify for conscientious objector status:

  1. Conscientious opposition to war in any form;
  2. Opposition based on religious training and belief; and
  3. Sincerity.

The Court then reviewed the Department of Justice’s letter to the Appeal Board. The letter said that Ali’s beliefs ‘do not appear to preclude military service in any form,’ that his opposition was based on ‘political and racial objections to the policies of the United States’ rather than religious training and belief, and that he had not ‘consistently manifested his conscientious-objector claim’.

At the hearing the United States Government conceded that Ali’s opposition to war was sincere and based upon ‘religious training and belief’. But it maintained its position that Ali was not opposed to war ‘in any form’ and argued that Ali, as he had stated that his religion forbid him from fighting in any war other than a holy war, was selectively opposed only to certain wars.

This almost led the Court to embark on interpretation of the Qur’an and the implications of Ali’s religious beliefs. But it did not have to do so. Ali’s conviction was tainted by a more obvious deficiency: the fact that Appeal Board had denied his claim without providing a statement of its reasons.

The Court held that, without reasons, it was impossible to determine which of the three grounds the Appeal Board had relied upon when it denied Ali’s claim. It held that it was not even possible to determine if the Appeal Board had relied upon a legitimate ground at all. The principle that decisions made without reasons are illegitimate had been established by a series of judgments of both the Supreme Court and courts of lower jurisdictions.

The Supreme Court therefore unanimously reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and quashed Ali’s conviction:

The long established rule of law embodied in these settled precedents thus clearly requires that the judgment before us be reversed.

It is so ordered.


Conscientious objection and freedom of religion

If Ali had been granted conscientious objector status he would not have been convicted. This is because section 456(j) of the Military Selective Service Act provided that a conscientious objector who met the above criteria could not be subjected to combatant training and service in the United States’ armed forces.

Section 456(j) existed to ensure that the Military Selective Service Act was consistent with the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

The effect of the First Amendment is that the United States Congress cannot force a person to fight if refusing to fight amounts to the free exercise of that person’s religion.

An American citizen has the right to claim that a law of the United States is restricting their religious freedom and along with it a right to have their claim properly assessed. The Appeal Board, in failing to provide reasons for its decision, did not properly assess Ali’s claim. This meant that it was unclear whether or not Ali was a conscientious objector at the time of his conviction. In such circumstances it was beyond the power of a court to convict him of evading the draft.


Ali and the rule of law

The principle of the rule of law mentioned in the introduction to this blog is that ‘the law is applied equally and fairly, so that no one is above the law’. Ali’s case shows that the converse of this is just as important: that the law is applied equally and fairly, so that no one is below the law.

The Department of Justice, the Appeal Board, the District Court for the Southern District of Texas and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit were all more concerned with making an example out of the outspoken black Muslim than with the proper discharge of their powers. In failing to apply the law equally and fairly to his claim they treated him like he was below the law.

The Supreme Court ultimately rectified this lack of fidelity to the rule of law. But it is hard to interpret Ali’s experience. On the one hand, justice prevailed and his conviction was overturned. On the other, he suffered four years of injustice in the interim and missed the best years of his fighting life.

Perhaps Ali himself can provide the answer. When asked if he would seek compensation for the loss of earnings he suffered whilst suspended he replied:

No. They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right.

Ali also once said that champions ‘have to have last-minute stamina’. Perhaps it is the same with the rule of law. It is true that Ali wasted his prime fighting years in court instead of in the ring. But at the last minute, in the chambers of the justices of the Supreme Court, the rule of law prevailed.


Robert Size

NSWYL International Law Committee