The U.S. Supreme Court has pushed back arguments in three death-penalty cases so it can expedite consideration of two cases involving Texas’ restrictive abortion statute. To hear argument in United States v. Texas and Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson on November 1, 2021, the court rescheduled argument in Ramirez (John) v. Collier and Shinn v. Ramirez (David) and Jones. The Court will now hear argument in Ramirez v. Collier on November 9, 2021, and in Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones on December 8, 2021.

In Ramirez v. Collier, the Court will review Texas death-row prisoner John Henry Ramirez’s claim that the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to “lay hands” on him or pray audibly during his execution violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The Court stayed Ramirez’s execution on the night of September 8, 2021, three hours after Ramirez had been scheduled to be put to death. Ramirez had requested that his pastor be allowed to accompany him into the execution chamber, lay hands on him to administer religious rites, and pray with him out loud. Texas, which had previously permitted prison chaplains to minister to condemned prisoners in the execution chamber, had said that Ramirez’s pastor could be admitted into the execution chamber but could neither speak nor touch Ramirez once inside the chamber.

RLIUPA provides that “No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution … unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person— (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

“So long as the death penalty is constitutional, states have a compelling interest in carrying the executions out,” Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham told The American Independent. “At some point, the right to exercise religion is overcome by the states’ interest in carrying out the execution. The question that the Supreme Court has the opportunity to answer is, what’s that point?”

In Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones, the Supreme Court will consider Arizona prosecutors’ challenge to federal appellate court rulings that allowed death-row prisoners to present the federal court with evidence of trial counsel’s ineffectiveness that their state post-conviction lawyers had failed to first present to the state courts. As a general rule, federal habeas corpus law requires a state prisoner to present an issue to the state courts as a precondition to receiving review of that claim in federal court. However, in a 7-2 decision in 2012 in Martinez v. Ryan — another Arizona death penalty case — created a limited exception when a state prisoner is provided ineffective representation both at trial and in state post-conviction proceedings and, because of the post-conviction lawyer’s failures, the prisoner was denied the chance to challenge his or her trial counsel’s ineffectiveness.

Arizona death-row prisoners Barry Jones and David Ramirez both allege that the state provided them ineffective representation throughout the trial and state post-conviction process. As a result, they assert, they were denied the opportunity to adequately present critical legal issues: Jones’ lawyers’ failure to investigate and present evidence of innocence and Ramirez’s lawyers’ failure to investigate and present evidence of intellectual disability and other mental health problems. Arizona argues that Jones and Ramirez may raise the issue of their trial counsel’s ineffectiveness but should be limited to the evidence that was before the state court. Legal scholars argue that Arizona’s argument would effectively gut Martinez and reward states for providing systemically inadequate representation.

Ramirez v. Collier and Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones are two of three death-penalty arguments at the Court this term. The third, United States v. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was argued on October 13, 2021.


Josh Axelrod, Advocates hope Supreme Court case will expand reli­gious rights on death row, The American Independent, October 25, 2021; Peter D. Keisler and James M. Cole, The Supreme Court Should Reject Arizona’s Effort to Impose Death Penalty Without a Fair Trial, National Law Journal, October 132021