The United States vs. Muhammad Ali
By Adam J. Pollack, Attorney at Law
On June 28, 1971, the United States Supreme Court reversed Muhammad Ali’s federal criminal conviction for refusing to enter the military. Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, 91 S.Ct. 2068, 29 L.Ed.2d 810 (1971). Most Americans are aware that world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to enter the U.S. Armed Forces and that his conviction for refusing to do so eventually was overturned. Ali’s moral, religious, and political position cost him a three and a half year absence from the boxing ring during his prime years. However, what is less known are the factual and legal intricacies of his draft status, draft evasion conviction, and appeals.1
Ali’s Draft Classification and Administrative Appeals
As required by law, on April 18, 1960, Cassius Marcellus Clay (as Ali then was known) registered with the selective service, Local Board No. 47, Louisville, Kentucky. Later that year, Clay won the 178-pound division Olympic boxing gold medal in Rome. In 1962, Cassius Clay was classified 1-A by Local Board No. 47, Louisville, Kentucky, meaning that he was available for military service and eligible to be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces.
On February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida, 22-year-old Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight championship when Sonny Liston retired in his corner after the sixth round.
The next day, Clay announced that he had joined the Lost Found Nation of Islam, otherwise known as the Black Muslim movement. He renounced his “slave name” and stated that he would be known as Cassius X until he could assume a Muslim name. This announcement angered most white Americans, who feared the Black Muslims as a dangerous group during a time of percolating racial unrest and black demands for equal protection under the law and recognition of their civil rights.
Ed Lassman, president of the World Boxing Association (W.B.A.), called Cassius unworthy of being champion and a bad example for American youth. Shortly thereafter, the W.B.A. stripped Ali of its title. Muslim civil rights leader Malcolm X responded by saying, “They knew that if people began to identify with Cassius and the type of image he was creating they were going to have trouble out of these Negroes.”
Several weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights march through Selma, Alabama. The nation’s conscience was aroused as it watched the television in shock as the police brutally attacked the marchers.
In March 1964, as a result of a low score on a mental aptitude examination, Cassius Clay (then Cassius X) was classified 1-Y, meaning that he was not qualified for induction in the armed forces under the current standards.
On May 25, 1965 in Lewiston, Maine, Cassius Clay, now calling himself Muhammad Ali, stopped Sonny Liston in the 1st round, successfully defending his world heavyweight championship. Initially, most writers and sports announcers refused to call him by his new name. Ali followed that win in Las Vegas with a November 22, 1965 stoppage of former champion Floyd Patterson in 12 rounds.
On February 17, 1966, after having been considered by the Examining Station in accordance with the current regulations (which had been lowered in light of an increased need for soldiers), without having been re-tested, Ali was found fully acceptable for induction into the military. He was re-classified 1-A in accordance with his original 1962 classification.
A week later, Ali submitted to the local draft board a Special Form for Conscientious Objector (I-O). This was the first time he claimed that he was a conscientious objector to war. Ali also requested a personal appearance before the local board regarding the change of his classification from 1-Y to 1-A. After granting Ali a personal appearance, the local board again classified him 1-A, eligible for service. Ali appealed the decision to the Kentucky Appeal Board.
Shortly after Ali won a late-March 1966 15-round decision against George Chuvalo in Toronto Canada, on May 6, 1966 the Kentucky Appeal Board determined that Ali was not entitled to the I-O (conscientious objector) status. The complete file was referred to the Department of Justice for an advisory recommendation as required by the Selective Service Regulations. The Department of Justice then requested an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.).
Ali continued his title defenses, in London, England, stopping Henry Cooper on cuts in 6 rounds and knocking out Brian London in 3 rounds in late May and early August 1966 respectively.
Following the conclusion of the requested F.B.I. investigation, a special hearing was held in Louisville. On August 23, 1966, the hearing officer reported his belief that Ali was sincere in his conscientious objector claim. At that point, Ali additionally claimed to be a minister of the Lost Found Nation of Islam. He contended he should be exempt from military service as a “regular minister of religion” (known as the IV-D classification).
Ali again defended his heavyweight championship in September and November 1966, in Frankfurt, Germany stopping Karl Mildenberger in the 12th round, and in Houston, Texas knocking out Cleveland Williams in the 3rd round.
On November 25, 1966, the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, Conscientious Objector Section, recommended to the Kentucky Appeal Board that Ali’s request for conscientious objector status be denied. Following that recommendation, on January 10, 1967, the Kentucky Appeal Board again denied the requested conscientious objector claim. Two days later, Local Board No. 47 in Kentucky unanimously found that Ali was not entitled to the ministerial exemption. A week later, at the written request of General Lewis B. Hershey, the National Director of Selective Service, the Local Board reconsidered Ali’s classification and again classified him 1-A.
On February 6, 1967 in Houston, Muhammad Ali won a 15-round decision against then W.B.A. champion Ernie Terrell, regaining the W.B.A. title.
Following another appeal, on February 15, 1967, the Appeal Board for the Southern District of Texas also classified Ali 1-A. A week later, the National Director of Selective Service, General Lewis B. Hershey, appealed Ali’s classification to the National Selective Service Appeal Board (also called the Presidential Appeal Board because it is composed of three members who are appointed by and act for the President, who has the power to decide claims). Ali himself could not file this appeal because the regulations required that one or more members of the appeal board dissent from the classification (which had not occurred) before a registrant has a right to file the appeal. The National Director of Selective Service had the discretion to file the appeal anyway, which he did.
On March 6, 1967, the three-member Presidential Appeal Board (which included a black member) reviewed Ali’s entire file and unanimously classified him I-A, denying him the conscientious objector status. Muhammad Ali had fully exhausted his administrative appeals.
On March 22, 1967 in New York, Muhammad Ali defended his heavyweight championship for the ninth time, knocking out Zora Folley in the 7th round. This would be Ali’s last bout for over three and a half years.
A week later, on March 29, 1967, the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky refused to grant an injunction against Ali’s induction into military service prior to presenting himself at an Induction Station. Ali v. Breathitt, 268 F.Supp. 63, 65 (W.D. Ky. 1967). Subsequently, the Supreme Court of the United States denied the application for stay of the District Court’s order. Therefore, Muhammad Ali was required to submit to induction into the armed forces.
Criminal Conviction and Appeals
On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali reported for but declined to submit to induction into the armed forces on the grounds of his religious beliefs as a minister of the Islamic Religion. On May 9, a federal grand jury indicted him for his refusal.
On June 20, 1967, Ali’s federal criminal jury trial resulted in his conviction for knowingly and willfully refusing to submit to induction into the armed forces of the United States. Although he had no prior criminal record or charges, Ali was sentenced to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Imprisonment was delayed pending the results of Ali’s appeals. He was freed upon a $5,000 bond.
On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive on the U.S. Embassy inflicted many casualties, inflicting a psychological blow to the war effort. It also caused the press to move toward a more liberal view of the Vietnam War, questioning its efficacy or need.
On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term of office. Four days later, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
On May 6, 1968, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, satisfied that he had been fairly afforded due process of law without discrimination, affirmed Muhammad Ali’s conviction for refusing to submit to induction into the armed forces of the United States. Clay v. United States, 397 F.2d 901 (5th. Cir., 1968). Ali’s appeal sought a declaration that the Universal Military Training and Service Act was unconstitutional as applied to him because of “systematic exclusion” of blacks from membership on draft boards, and that there was no basis in fact for the denial of his ministerial exemption or the conscientious objector status.
Due Process - Black Representation on Draft Boards
Ali’s first basis of appeal claimed that he was denied due process of law because the ratio of blacks on draft boards did not reflect their ratio in the population. Ali was correct that there was not only a local imbalance, but a nationwide imbalance of black membership on draft boards. However, the court found that the absence of a proportion of blacks on draft boards in accordance with their ratio to the population was not a violation of the law.
The racial imbalance on draft boards resulted from the federal appointments by the President upon recommendations of the governors of each state. The appointments were the result of the political process, which does not require such appointments to reflect population ratios. The court compared appointments as a result of the political process to a malapportioned legislature. The court held that acts of such a legislature are not invalid. There is no right to be classified and inducted by a selective service board composed of a percentage of black members which the black population bears to the total population.
Even if Ali’s objection regarding the proportionality of blacks on draft boards was valid, it could not stand in light of the fact that a three member board which was onethird black had unanimously classified him eligible for service (1-A). The Presidential Appeal Board acts for the President himself, as it is the President who is vested with the functions and duties of the determination of questions with respect to inclusion for, or exemption from military service. The Appeal Board considers matters of classification de novo. That is, its classification is one of first instance and not a mere affirmation or reversal of the Local Board. Any prejudice or error on the local level is cured by a fair and fresh consideration on appeal, because the action of the board of appeals completely supersedes the action of the local board. One of the three members of the Presidential Appeal Board was black, and therefore Ali’s draft status ultimately was determined by an appeal board which was 33% black, reflecting a greater percentage of blacks than in the population as a whole.
The court noted that Ali had been classified 1-A on seven different occasions; on four different occasions, Ali was classified 1-A (available for military service) by his local board, twice more by appeal boards in Kentucky and Texas, and once by the National Selective Service Appeal Board. All votes were unanimous. Ali was afforded every procedure known to the Act and the regulations, and an appeal to the Presidential Appeal Board to which he was not specifically entitled.
Denial of the Ministerial Exemption
The scope of review of local board decisions in draft cases is very limited, and the range of review the narrowest known to the law. The court has authority to reverse only if there is a denial of basic procedural fairness or if the conclusion of the board is without any factual basis.
Ali claimed that the denial of the requested ministerial exemption from military service was without any factual basis. A Congressionally created exemption from military service includes regular or duly ordained ministers of religion. A regular minister of religion is one who teaches the principles of religion as his customary vocation. A regular minister of religion must be recognized by his or her church, sect, or organization as a regular minister, although he or she does not necessarily have to be formally ordained as a minister of religion. The exemption is intended for the leaders of the various religious faiths and not for the members generally. Preaching or teaching the principles of one’s sect, if performed part-time, occasionally or irregularly, are insufficient to bring a registrant under the exemption. The activities must be regularly performed and comprise the registrant’s vocation, and the registrant must have a recognized standing as a minister.
The court found the evidence which the local board had before it was much more than necessary to constitute a “basis in fact” for Ali’s 1-A classification and denial of the ministerial exemption. Ali was certified as a minister by the National Secretary of the Lost Found Nation of Islam and by its leader, Elijah Muhammad. He contended that he spent 90% of his time on his ministerial duties. However, although he contended he became a minister in 1964, his vocation appeared to be professional boxer. In the first information which he supplied to his local board on selective service forms, his occupation was shown to be that of “professional boxer” and “professional prizefighter.” The Report of Medical History dated January 24, 1964 showed his usual occupation to be “boxing.” His Current Information Questionnaire dated February 2, 1966 listed his occupation as a “professional boxer” and his work as “professional fighting.” Just three days prior to his reclassification to 1-A from 1-Y, Ali wrote Local Board No. 47 on February 14, 1966, stating, “My occupation is professional boxer, and I am at present the Heavyweight Champion of the World.”
Even when he filled out the Special Form for Conscientious Objector dated February 28, 1966, though claiming to be a member of the Nation of Islam, he did not claim to be a minister. His March 17, 1966 letter to the Local Board No. 47 protested that his reclassification imposed “grave hardship upon me as heavyweight champion of the world at now age 24.” Finally, when he appeared in person before the Local Board on March 19, 1966, boxing was listed as his livelihood. Accordingly, the court held Muhammad Ali’s vocation clearly was that of a professional boxer.
Denial of Conscientious Objector Status
“The knowledge that military service must sometimes be borne by – and imposed on – free men so their freedom may be preserved is woven deeply into the fabric of the American experience.” – U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Message on Selective Service to the Congress, March 6, 1967.
Technically, every adult American citizen may be compelled to serve in the armed forces. There is no constitutional right to exemption from service for conscientious objector or ministerial status. However, Congress is empowered to create exemptions from military service. Therefore, the conscientious objector or ministerial exemptions from military service are purely matters of Congressional legislative grace.
Muhammad Ali’s appeal also claimed there was no factual basis for the denial of his status as a conscientious objector. Under the law, only a general scruple against participation in war in any form can support a claim for conscientious objector status. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was more than adequate evidence to justify the rejection of Ali’s claim, for he did not object to participation in war in any form.
Ali’s claim that he was a conscientious objector began on February 18, 1966, one day after his reclassification to 1-A. In his appearance before Local Board No. 47 on March 19, 1966, Ali claimed hardship on account of taking care of his parents and paying alimony to his former wife. The board’s record stated, regarding Ali’s opposition to war, “His religion teaches them not to take part in any way with infidels or any nonreligious group.” Also, “Clay objects to being in service because he has no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”
Ali wrote a lengthy letter to his local board dated April 16, 1966 in which he repeated his above-referenced hardship claims. He protested that two years of military service would cause him serious financial loss in being unable to pursue his livelihood as a professional boxer. The letter read in part,
Two years is a very long time in the life of a heavyweight champ. . . I may never be able to overcome this time of loss of boxing sharpness and come back from the service and earn the kind of money required to pay off these financial obligations, even though they may be abated during the time of military service. I would therefore be in hock for the rest of my life, whereas if I can get in a few more fights, which are lined up through the fall of this year, I should be able to settle these permanent financial obligations from the money I should
get within this year, which I am at my peak of shape and am the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
The local board reaffirmed the 1-A classification.
The Department of Justice requested an F.B.I. investigation and a special hearing on the character and good faith of Ali’s conscientious objections. The special hearing was held on August 23, 1966. The hearing officer reported to the Department of Justice that Ali stated his views in a convincing manner and answered all questions forthrightly. He believed Ali was of good character, morals, and integrity and sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation to war in any form. He recommended that the conscientious objector claim be sustained.
However, the Department of Justice opposed Ali’s claim, concluding that Ali’s objections to participation in war insofar as they were based upon the teachings of the Nation of Islam “rest on grounds which are primarily political and racial. These constitute objections to only certain types of war in certain circumstances, rather than a general scruple against participation in war in any form.” Therefore, Ali’s grounds for conscientious objector status were inconsistent with the legal requirements. At the F.B.I. special hearing, Ali stated,
If the Honorable Elijah Muhammad looked me in my face and he who I believe is directly from Allah, Almighty God Allah, and if he looked at me and advised me, which I’m sure he wouldn’t, to fight in any kind of war, if he advised me to I would. … I wouldn’t raise all this court stuff and I wouldn’t go through all of this and lose and give up the millions that I gave up and my image with the American public. . . if I wasn’t sincere in every bit of what the Holy Qur’an and the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tell us and it is that we are not to participate in wars on the side of nobody who - - on the side of nonbelievers, and this is a Christian country and this is not a Muslim country, and the Government and the history and the facts shows that every move toward the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is made to distort and is made to ridicule him and is made to condemn him and the Government has admitted that the police of Los Angeles were wrong about attacking and killing our brothers and sisters and they were wrong in Newark, New Jersey, and they were wrong in Louisiana, and the outright, everyday oppressors and enemies are the people as a whole, the whites of this nation.
Ali also affirmed at the F.B.I. special hearing that he was correctly quoted by the Chicago Daily News on February 18, 1966 in stating, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Vietcongs . . . . Let me tell you, we Muslims are taught to defend
ourselves when we are attacked. Those Vietcong are not attacking me. . . . Why should we Muslims get involved?”
The Nation of Islam’s teachings did not preclude fighting for the United States because of objections to participation in war in any form but rather because of objections to policies of the United States as interpreted by Elijah Muhammad. Therefore, the court held there was adequate evidence to justify the rejections of Ali’s claim. The court cited United States v. Spiro, 384 F.2d 159 (3rd Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 390 U.S. 956 (1968), in which the court upheld the denial of the conscientious objection claim of a Roman Catholic who said he would fight only in a “just war.” Ali, like the Roman Catholic, was not opposed to war in any form. Hence, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied his appeal.
In March, 1969, the W.B.C. declared the heavyweight title vacant because of Ali’s inability to defend the title as a result of his continuing legal problems. Ali had not fought for two years. No state would grant him a boxing license.
Influence of Illegal Government Wire Taps
On March 24, 1969, Muhammad Ali argued that his draft status and criminal conviction had been influenced improperly by illegal wire taps. The Supreme Court of the United States remanded Ali’s case to the lower court for a determination of whether electronic government surveillance used against him in his criminal trial was in violation of Ali’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Ali had been a party to five telephone conversations which agents of the F.B.I improperly and illegally had overheard electronically via the use of warrantless wiretaps. Ali had standing to challenge the legality of the surveillance even though it was not his telephone under surveillance, but the telephones of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elijah Muhammad. It was necessary to determine whether his conviction was tainted by the information obtained as a result of the illegal electronic surveillance.
The government conceded that the surveillance was illegal. However, the lower court was required to decide whether the evidence gathered against Ali grew out of his illegally overheard conversations or whether the evidence was obtained by means independent of the illegal wire taps so as to be purged of their influence. If the recommendation by the Department of Justice to deny Ali’s conscientious objector claim was based upon illegally obtained evidence and not upon independent properly
obtained evidence, the “basis in fact” which the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas used for his classification would have been defective.
A log of a March 24, 1964 wiretap of Elijah Muhammad’s phone (Log 2) stated, “Elijah said he wanted to see Clay as he was going to make a minister out of him when he quit thinking of fighting all the time.” Another log of a telephone surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Log 4) stated “C said that he is keeping up with MLK that MLK is his brother, and with him 100% but can’t take any chances, and that MLK should take care of himself, that MLK is known world wide and should watch out for them whities (sic) . . .” Ali attempted to show that because Log 2 reflected Elijah Muhammad’s wish that Ali become a minister, and because Log 4 reflected Ali’s reference to “them whiteys,” the logs would have an influence regarding his ministerial status and a bearing on the Department’s conclusion that his beliefs were political and racial, rather than religious.
On July 14, 1969, the lower court held not only was there positive testimony that the logs were not used at all in the preparation of the Department of Justice report, but the logs were “so totally innocuous” that they could not have had any bearing on the defendant’s conviction even if they were used. The Department of Justice’s duty was to submit a recommendation concerning Ali’s status as a conscientious objector, not a minister. Therefore Log 2, regarding Elijah Muhammad’s desire to make Ali a minister, was irrelevant because it had no bearing on whether Ali was entitled to conscientious objector status. The Department could have recommended Ali be granted conscientious objector status despite the fact that he was not a minister of his religion. Even if the issue had been before the Department, the court found that the independent evidence that Ali was not a minister was overwhelming.
The court also held that construing a passing reference to “them whiteys” as being the Department’s basis, or even partial reason, for holding Ali’s beliefs to be political and racial was “completely untenable.” The conversation was not a theological discussion and the common slang reference was not within a context which could have had any bearing on Ali’s beliefs. In addition, even if there had been such a context, there was ample evidence from an independent origin before the Department to conclude that the Muslim religion (as taught by Elijah Muhammad) held the white race in contempt. Elijah Muhammad had said in the Supreme Wisdom, “The white race or Caucasian European race is known to God and his prophets as Satan, the devil, the enemy of God and his people (the original nation) power was given to them to rule with evil and falsehood the darker nations for six thousand years. . . If you understood it right you will agree with me that the whole Caucasian Race is a race of devils.” Accordingly, the court found the information obtained in the wiretaps could
not have been relevant to Ali’s conviction. United States v. Clay, 386 F. Supp. 926 (S.D. Tex. 1969).
On July 6, 1970, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit once again upheld Ali’s conviction, holding that it was “clear from uncontradicted testimony that none of the information obtained in the five wiretapped telephone conversations was used in the F.B.I. investigation of defendant’s conscientious objector claim, or in the preparation of the adverse Department of Justice recommendation made in connection with defendant’s original request for conscientious objector classification." United States of America, v. Cassius Marsellus Clay, Jr., 430 F.2d 165 (5th Cir. 1970).
On September 14, 1970, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Ali’s motion for a preliminary injunction restraining the New York State Athletic Commission from refusing to grant him a boxing license, holding that the Commission had violated Ali’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights, that its denial of his license was arbitrary and capricious, that Ali’s conviction for draft evasion had no rational relationship to the regulated activity of boxing, was irrelevant to the proper exercise of the Commission’s functions, and that the Commission had discriminated against him in violation of his rights under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by granting licenses to other convicted criminals.
Although his criminal appeals were ongoing, Ali would be able to box again. In his first fight in three and a half years, on October 26, 1970 in Atlanta, Georgia, Muhammad Ali stopped Jerry Quarry on cuts after the 3rd round. On December 7 in New York, Ali knocked out Oscar Bonavena in the 15th round.
On March 8, 1971 in New York, billed as ‘The Fight,’ a bout for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, Muhammad Ali lost a unanimous 15-round decision to Joe Frazier. Although this was Ali’s first professional boxing loss, there was another round to be fought, more important to Muhammad Ali than any boxing match . . .
The Final Round – The U.S. Supreme Court Decision
Muhammad Ali’s legal appeals finally ended on June 28, 1971, when the Supreme Court of the United States addressed the denial of Ali’s application for conscientious objector status. In order to qualify for classification as a conscientious objector, a registrant must satisfy three tests: He must show that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form, that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief, and that the objection is sincere. If Ali failed any of the three tests, his conscientious objector claim could not be valid under the law.
The Court addressed the required opposition to war in any form. In addition to the statements cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Ali had testified that Islam did not allow war “unless declared by Allah himself, or unless it’s an Islamic World War, or a Holy War . . .” The Islamic just war, or jihad, was a war in which Ali would take part. Clearly, Ali was not opposed to war in any form. Therefore, the Department of Justice had written a letter to the Appeal Board stating that Ali’s beliefs “do not appear to preclude military service in any form, but rather are limited to military service in the Armed Forces of the United States. … These constitute only objections to certain types of war in certain circumstances, rather than a general scruple against participation in war in any form. However, only a general scruple against participation in war in any form can support an exemption as a conscientious objector under the Act.” Because Ali was not opposed to war in any form as required by the law, he did not fulfill the requirements necessary for conscientious objector status.
The Department of Justice also had recommended rejection of Ali’s claim for two other reasons - because it believed that Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War was not based upon religious belief, and because it questioned the sincerity of Ali’s beliefs. The Department letter to the Appeal Board stated, “It seems clear that the teachings of the Nation of Islam preclude fighting for the United States not because of objections to participation in war in any form but rather because of political and racial objections to policies of the United States as interpreted by Elijah Muhammad.” The letter also stated that Ali “has not consistently manifested his conscientious - objector claim. Such a course of overt manifestation is requisite to establishing a subjective state of mind and belief.” The Department criticized that Ali’s claim was not asserted until military service became imminent.
Upon receipt of the Department of Justice’s recommendation letter, the Appeal Board denied Ali’s conscientious objector claim without specifically identifying the reasons for the denial. Therefore, the Supreme Court did not know which reasons were relied upon by the Appeal Board as its grounds for the denial of the claim.
Despite the Department of Justice recommendation letter, the Government conceded on appeal that Ali’s beliefs indeed were based upon religious training and belief, as they were founded upon basic tenets of the Muslim religion. The Government also conceded that it no longer questioned the sincerity of Ali’s beliefs. It continued to argue that Ali should not be granted conscientious objector status because he did not object to war in any form, as required.
The Court held that the integrity of the Selective Service System demands that the Government not recommend illegal grounds. Although it remained clear that Ali
failed the requirement that he object to war in any form, because the Appeal Board did not state which of the three grounds it based its decision upon, the court could not speculate. It was not possible to know whether the Appeal Board denied Ali’s conscientious objector status because of only one ground for which denial was proper, or one or both of the improper grounds which the government conceded were wrong. Therefore, his conviction could not stand.
In conclusion, even though the Appeal Board could have denied Ali’s request for the singular reason that he did not object to war in any form, because two of the three grounds upon which the Department of Justice recommended denial of the claim were not valid, and the Appeal Board did not state which of the reasons it relied upon (hence the denial might have been based solely upon an invalid reason), the Supreme Court held that Ali’s conviction could not be upheld. Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, 91 S.Ct. 2068, 29 L.Ed.2d 810 (1971).
As we know in boxing, a win is a win, whether it is a knockout, or a narrow points decision, or a win via disqualification. In this instance, in an 8-0 decision, Muhammad Ali’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
1 The facts herein primarily are taken from Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, 91 S.Ct. 2068, 29 L.Ed.2d 810 (1971); United States v. Clay, 430 F.2d 165 (5th Cir. 1970); United States v. Clay, 386 F. Supp. 926 (S.D. Tex. 1969); Clay v. United States, 397 F.2d 901 (5th. Cir., 1968).
Adam J. Pollack is a distinguished Iowa College of Law graduate, attorney, and boxing judge who practices law in Iowa. Adam has been active in the sport of boxing as both boxer and coach, and we are proud to post his discussion of the late great Muhammad Ali’s lesser known constitutional law bout with the New York State Athletic Commission.