Bloomberg Law
Sept. 8, 2021, 3:11 PMUpdated: Sept. 9, 2021, 2:44 AM

Justices Grant Rare Stay, Argument on Religion at Executions (1)

Jordan S. Rubin
Jordan S. Rubin

The U.S. Supreme Court took the rare step Wednesday night of not only staying an execution but setting the capital case down for full briefing and argument.

On top of blocking John Ramirez’s execution, the high court will hear argument in the fall on the issue of prisoners’ rights to religious advisers during executions.

The issue has divided the justices in multiple cases in recent years. No justices noted any dissent from Wednesday night’s order staying the execution and ordering the case to be briefed in time for oral argument in October or November, at the start of the new term.

Ramirez’s appeal, filed ahead of his scheduled execution Wednesday in Texas, came amid increased scrutiny of the so-called shadow docket, through which the high court majority let the state’s abortion ban take effect last week.

The shadow-docket term refers to court actions falling outside the normal course of full briefing and argument followed by lengthy deliberation and detailed opinions.

Wednesday’s order takes the case off of the shadow docket and puts it on track for a more considered resolution, compared to the quick, night-of-execution rulings that the court often issues in capital cases.

Ramirez’s request to let his pastor lay hands on him and pray with him while he dies by lethal injection pits religious claims, which have generally succeeded at the high court, against death-row claims, which generally haven’t.

The spiritual-adviser issue has been a rare winner, relatively, for death-row prisoners. Even then, it has divided the justices.

Texas intended to execute Ramirez, 37, for the 2004 Corpus Christi killing of Pablo Castro.

Prison officials have cited safety concerns in rejecting spiritual-adviser requests. In this case, Texas said Ramirez’s pastor can enter the chamber but can’t touch—or sing, say, or whisper prayers or scripture to—his parishioner during the execution.

Emergency rulings in capital cases have been some of the court’s most contentious.

During the final six months of the Trump administration, the majority allowed 13 executions to proceed with prisoners’ claims unsettled, prompting Justice Sonia Sotomayor to criticize the court for having “repeatedly sidestepped its usual deliberative processes, often at the Government’s request, allowing it to push forward with an unprecedented, breakneck timetable of executions.”

The case is Ramirez v. Collier, U.S., 21-5592, 21A33.

(Recasts with decision to stay execution and grant review of case)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at; Seth Stern at; John Crawley at