Supreme Court grants stay to Texas death row inmate

On June 16, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a stay of Texas death row inmate Ruben Guetierrez's then-pending execution.  The order read:

     The application for stay of execution of sentence of death 
presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is 
granted pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of 
certiorari.  Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be 
denied, this stay shall terminate automatically.  In the event 
the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall 
terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.  
The District Court should promptly determine, based on whatever 
evidence the parties provide, whether serious security problems 
would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to 
choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his 
immediate presence during the execution.

Gutierrez v. Saenz, 19-8695 (19A1052) (June 16, 2020). 

On June 9, 2020, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in case number 1:19-CV-185, had issued an Order staying the upcoming June 16th execution.  The case is a § 1983 action challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ DNA testing statute and the refusal of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ("TDCJ" to allow a TDCJ employed chaplain to accompany Gutierrez during his final moments in the execution chamber. The stay was vacated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion on June 12, 2020, in case number 20-70009.  The issues presented in the pending petition for writ of certiorari are:

   Prior to March 28, 2019, Texas allowed inmates undergoing execution to have a State-employed chaplain (all of whom were Christian or Muslim) present in the execution chamber. Patrick Murphy alleged that this policy discriminated against Buddhist inmates like him. On March 28, 2019, this Court stayed Murphy’s execution to consider his claim. Murphy v. Collier , 139 S. Ct. 1475, 1475 (2019).  

   On April 2, 2019, Texas changed its policy. Under the new policy, Texas allows neither State-employed chaplains nor any other religious advisers to be present in the execution room. Petitioner, a Catholic, timely challenged the new policy as violating the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc–2000cc–5 (2000). The district court found that Petitioner was likely to succeed on the merits, denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss, and granted Petitioner’s motion for a stay. The Fifth Circuit granted Defendants’ motion to vacate the stay. This Court should grant this Petition, stay the execution, vacate the decision below, and remand to the district court to consider the merits of Petitioner’s claims.  

  The questions presented are: 
  1. Under the RLUIPA, does the State’s decision to deprive Mr. Gutierrez of the opportunity to be accompanied during his execution by a religious adviser employed by the prison substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require the State to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest? 
  2. For purposes of the Free Exercise Clause, does the State’s blanket policy of denying all prisoners the aid of a religious adviser at the time of the execution— adopted for the acknowledged purpose of avoiding the obligation to allow such a minister to a Buddhist prisoner—burden Mr. Gutierrez’s exercise of religion without legitimate justification? 

Gutierrez v. Collier, 19-8695, Petition for Writ of Certiorari (June 15, 2020).