SCOTUS up angle1Written by Don Byrd

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Holt v. Hobbs, in which an Arkansas inmate claims a prison rule prohibiting him from growing a beard violates his religious freedom rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The law forbids the state from substantially burdening an inmate’s religious exercise unless such a burden is necessary to achieve a compelling interest. The law does, however, appropriately grant prison officials a measure of deference in evaluating their means of achieving compelling safety and security goals.

The Court’s questions focused on 1) the nature and extent of that deference, and 2) where the court should draw the line in this case, considering that the accommodation the inmate is seeking is for only a 1/2-inch beard. Below are some highlights from the oral argument transcript:

Of particular concern to Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts was whether the Court should settle the question regarding all beards of any length, or just the limited 1/2-inch beard in this case.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: [O]ne of the difficult issues in a case like this is where to draw the line. And you just say, well, we want to draw the line at half inch because that lets us win. And the next day someone’s going to be here with one inch. And maybe it’ll be you.  And then, you know, two inches. It seems to me you can’t avoid the legal difficulty just by saying, all we want is half an inch.

MR. LAYCOCK (representing the plaintiff):  Well, most of the cases seek a full beard or full hair.  And sooner or later, you will have to decide one of those cases.  But this case, he made a pro se decision to limit his request.  The Court expressly limited the question presented.  So this case is only about half an inch.

JUSTICE SCALIA: [M]aybe this was improvidently granted.  I don’t want to do these cases half inch by half inch.  Let’s ­­ let’s take a case that involves a full beard.  I mean . . .­­ the next case will be one inch, then one and a half inches, two inches.

MR. LAYCOCK:  They’re not going to come in that order.  The next case is going to be most likely, the next case is going to be a full beard because that’s the great bulk of the cases.

While both sides agree that under the law some deference is due prison officials when they claim a rule is necessary to avoid harm to safety and security concerns, the Court struggled to clarify precisely how that deference should be applied.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR:  Could you put your answer in practical terms.  The Chief Justice asks you what’s the legal principle that you want us to apply, and you announce it as give them the right deference. It’s a little bit circular, the answer, in my mind. Looking at what the circuits have been doing, which one do you think articulates the best approach to RLUIPA and what courts should be doing?

MR. LAYCOCK: . . . I’m not sure any circuit has given a fully elaborated account of deference in the context of a compelling interest test.  We think the more reasoned and informed [the prison officials’] explanation, the more deference is due.  So do they give concrete examples of specific harms?  Do they treat similar risks the same way?  Do they ­­take account of solutions that have been found to work in other jurisdictions?  Do they take account of the religious needs of prisoners at any point, or do they just reflexively say no?

[Later, in response to a question from Justice Kagan] I think they have to show . . . a material effect on their security situation.  Any teeny tiny risk, however small, is another way of de facto repealing the statute, because you can always imagine some teeny tiny risk.

The attorney representing Arkansas’ Department of Corrections offered 2 reasons for the no-beard rule: 1) that beards allow inmates to conceal their identity, and 2) that beards may allow inmates to conceal contraband. The Court took the first – identification – issue more seriously, though Justice Alito pointed out the difficulty with the danger the state suggests.

JUSTICE ALITO: . . . I’m having difficulty envisioning what you’re ­­ the scenario that you’re ­­ you’re suggesting.  So a prisoner who’s supposed to be in barracks A has a 1/2­inch beard, has an ID that says barracks A, has that person’s picture on it, goes out in the field, brings a razor with him?

MR. CURRAN:  Shaves ­­

JUSTICE ALITO:  While he’s out there, he shaves, then he wants to come back and go into barracks B. And how’s he going to get into barracks B if he has an ID that says barracks A?  Now you say he’s going to trade with another prisoner?  Then he will have a different picture on the ID, he’s going to alter ­­they’re going to alter the IDs also while they’re out there in the fields?

MR. CURRAN:  No.  They ­­ they alter the they would alter the ID.  I mean, they ­­ what happens is you’ve got very fast recognition and if they favor each other at all ­­ I mean, this happens now, Your Honor.  I mean, so ­­ and the shave would take place probably in the barracks in the morning.  But when they come back, the person monitoring the flow of 60 inmates through there gets beaten, and that happens.  And the concern is the

JUSTICE ALITO:  So he has to find somebody who also looks like him from barracks B.

MR. CURRAN:  I would think that’s how that scenario would work, but that’s ­­ that happens.  And that’s ­­ I mean, prisoners are capable of doing a lot of mischief in prison, as you understand, I think, and ­and that kind of thing happens even now.

The Court seemed even less persuaded by the state’s argument that the no-beard rule is necessary to prevent contraband from being hidden in even a 1/2-inch beard.

JUSTICE BREYER:  I take it there’s no example, not a single example in any State, that allows beard policies where somebody did hide something in his beard.

MR. CURRAN:  I think that’s mostly right, Your Honor . . .

JUSTICE BREYER:  So there is no such examples.  Then do you think it might fit within the language of that report which says that the fear of people hiding things in their beards is, to use their language ­­ what was it ­­ grossly exaggerated? Would you say it’s an exaggerated fear that people would hide something in their beards when, in a country of a very high prison population, not one example has ever been found of anybody hiding anything in his beard, as far as you can tell and as far as I can tell.

MR. CURRAN:  As far as ­­

JUSTICE BREYER:  Do I have that right?

MR. CURRAN:  As far as I can tell. But let me make a caveat there that I think is important, which is that just because we haven’t found the example doesn’t mean they aren’t there . . .

JUSTICE ALITO:  . . . [W]hy can’t the prison just give the inmate a comb . . and say comb your beard, and if there’s anything in there, if there’s a SIM card in there or a revolver or anything else you think ­­
JUSTICE ALITO:  can be hidden in a 1/2­inch beard, a tiny revolver, it’ll fall out.

MR. CURRAN: You know, I suppose that’s a possible alternative. I think the concern there is there’s no perfect way of searching and­­ and there’s a lot of area there and you’re going to have to really monitor to make sure they get all the spots. But

JUSTICE ALITO: Do you really think that would be difficult, to say here’s a comb, comb your beard?

MR. CURRAN: I don’t think it would be that difficult.  I mean, I’m not in the prison environment. It really wasn’t raised on this record.  My clients might think that it is, but based on the information I have, I would agree that sounds like that would be something that could be done.

Read the BJC’s press release following yesterday’s oral argument here, including a statement from General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman, who was in the courtroom for the argument.