Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali Monday won a Supreme Court reversal of his draft-refusal conviction. The court held that the Justice Department “was simply wrong as a matter of law” in the case.
In an 8-0 decision, the court said that “there is absolutely no way of knowing” whether Ali had been denied a conscientious-objector exemption on legal grounds.
Ali, who was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 in 1967 for refusing to be inducted, met with newsmen in Chicago shortly after a grocery-store owner hugged him and told him of the decision.
“I’ve done my celebrating already. I said a prayer to Allah,” said Ali, who sought exemption from the draft as a member of the Muslim faith, which opposes war. Ali, who is training to fight heavyweight contender Jimmy Ellis in Houston July 26, added: “I thank the Supreme Court for recognizing the sincerity of my belief in myself and my convictions.”
The court’s unsigned opinion left no room for retrying Ali, and a Selective Service System spokesman said there would be no further moves to draft him.
“He’s over 26, and it’s Selective Service policy not to process anyone over that age,” the spokesman said. Ali is 29. The spokesman added that the ruling was being studied to see “what implications it has — if any — on other pending cases.”
The Justice Department had urged the court to affirm Ali’s conviction on the ground that he is opposed only to white men’s wars, not war in any form — the standard set for conscientious-objector status by earlier court rulings.
But the court noted that this was only one of three reasons the department cited in 1966 when it overruled its own hearing officer’s recommendation that Ali be granted the exemption.
The other two reasons, which the department conceded in the Supreme Court were invalid, were that Ali’s opposition to war was neither based on religious training and belief nor sincere, also requirements for exemption. The department cited the three reasons in asking a Selective Service appeals board to turn down Ali’s conscientious-objector bid.
“Since the appeal board gave no reasons for its denial of (Ali’s) claim, there is absolutely no way of knowing” on which of the three grounds the board relied, the court said.
“It is indisputably clear … that the (Justice) department was simply wrong as a matter of law in advising that (Ali’s) beliefs were not religiously based and were not sincerely held,” the court said.
Quoting from a 16-year-old decision, the court added: “The integrity of the Selective Service system demands, at least, that the government not recommend illegal grounds.”
Justice Thurgood Marshall, noting that he had served as solicitor general when Ali’s case was pending before lower courts, took no part in the case.
Note: This article was originally published on June 29, 1971.