World champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s biggest fight outside of the boxing ring was in the arena of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court’s 1971 decision is a huge part of his legacy.
In fact, without the influence of two Supreme Court justices, Ali's boxing career, at least in the United States, might have been delayed severely after 1971.
Ali, the boxing legend and humanitarian, passed away at the age of 74 in Arizona on Friday night.
In the book The Brethern: Inside The Supreme Court, Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) and Scott Armstrong detailed how the eight justices hearing Ali’s case about his draft stratus changed the verdict after their initial conference vote. (Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case due to his prior role as Solicitor General.)
Ali’s case was before the court as Clay v. United States, since he refused induction into the military in 1967, on religious grounds.
Ali became a polarizing figure in 1964 after changing his name from Cassius Clay and joining the Nation of Islam. He was arrested and convicted in the 1967 draft case, and Ali lost his license to earn a living as a boxer.
But Ali didn’t quit fighting about his case, as he battled people who thought he was a draft dodger in an era when segregation was still a part of society.
In 1970, Ali regained his boxing license as his case went through appeals. But in March 1971, he lost a bid to regain his title from Joe Frazier. Another loss in the Supreme Court case of June 1971 would have been a huge blow to Ali’s career.
Initially, Woodward and Armstrong said the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-3 against Ali during a conference.
Then the justice assigned to write the majority decision, John Marshall Harlan, changed his vote after a clerk gave him a book to read that made Ali’s religious convictions clear.
The book was reportedly The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, and Harlan realized Ali had deep-seated religious convictions that made him a true conscientious objector.
But that left the court divided at 4-4, and since Ali had lost his lower court appeal, he would lose the Supreme Court case. And the court’s rules would also leave Ali without an explanation for the court’s decision.
The justices reconvened, since Ali was the best-known sports figure in the world. They wanted to provide an explanation. They worked toward a compromise that could at least detail the thoughts behind their decision.
Woodward and Armstrong said it was Justice Potter Stewart who looked at the case and convinced the other justices that the lower courts never explained why they turned down Ali’s appeals.
The final decision was a unanimous ruling, 8-0, in favor of Ali, a stunning turnaround from a potential 5-3 loss.
After the court announced its decision, reporters asked Ali if he intended to recover damages from his three-year exile from boxing.
"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,” he said.
The Supreme Court decision happened when the court of public opinion was turning against the Vietnam War. That led many former detractors to look at Ali in a different light.
In an article from 2012 in the Chicago Law Bulletin, Michael I. Spak, a military law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, said Ali's case set a precedent in conscientious objector cases.
Spak said Ali was the last member of a recognized, peaceful religion to face draft evasion charges. Ali regained his boxing title in 1974 from George Foreman.
But back in 1967, he made his true feelings known in a statement issued after his induction ceremony arrest.
"I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my Constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail."