In prison grooming case, justices become the ‘Barbers of Capitol Hill’

University of Virginia Law School Professor Douglas Laycock argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of prisoner Gregory Houston Holt who wants to grow a beard. Photo taken in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 7, 2014. (Mike Doyle/McClatchy)
University of Virginia Law School Professor Douglas Laycock argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of prisoner Gregory Houston Holt who wants to grow a beard. Photo taken in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 7, 2014. (Mike Doyle/McClatchy) McClatchy

Arkansas prison inmate Gregory Houston Holt has a violent past, a dreary future and now, it appears, a decent shot at a Supreme Court victory.

On Tuesday, conservative and liberal justices alike sounded sympathetic to Holt’s claims that prison officials’ refusal to let him grow a half-inch beard violates his religious rights. If he wins, Holt will join inmates in California and elsewhere who have upended prison grooming standards, while no-beard rules in states like Georgia, Texas and South Carolina could be vulnerable.

Several justices in particular challenged Arkansas state officials’ insistence that inmates could hide contraband in beards, or shave them as a disguise.

“Not one example has ever been found of anyone ever hiding anything in their beard,” Justice Stephen Breyer noted, further suggesting the state’s fears are “grossly exaggerated.”

Justice Samuel Alito added that Arkansas officials could easily invent a comb to pass through inmates’ beards, concluding with a wry image that punctured the state’s dire warnings.

“If there’s anything in there . . . a tiny revolver, it’ll fall out,” Alito said, prompting laughter.

Alito, during his prior service as an appellate court judge, wrote a 1999 opinion striking down the Newark, N.J., Police Department’s ban on beards sought by Muslim officers. On Tuesday, he may have further tipped his hand by sketching out a highly unlikely scenario in which a prisoner eludes guards through shaving.

Still, the hour-long oral argument that occurred on the second day of the Supreme Court’s new term featured pressing questions for both sides, as well as the voicing of some judicial concern about having to trim specific beard-length regulations.

“I don’t want to do these cases half-inch by half-inch,” Justice Antonin Scalia said, while Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. similarly questioned whether “we just litigate dozens of cases until we settle on one-and-three-quarters inch, or what?”

Holt is challenging the no-beard rule under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law states the government cannot impose a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of an inmate unless it is the “least restrictive means” of meeting a “compelling government interest.”

A key question is how much deference should be granted to prison authorities in keeping facilities secure. Prisons, like the military and the overall national security apparatus, often command considerable deference from judges.

Eighteen states, including Kansas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, have rallied around Arkansas. Whatever their inmate grooming policies may be, they echo the Arkansas argument that courts should accept the states’ judgments about maintaining prison safety.

“Prisoners are capable of doing a lot of mischief in prison,” said Arkansas Deputy Attorney General David A. Curran.

The 39-year-old Holt is a designated habitual offender, serving a life sentence at the state’s Varner Supermax prison. He has previously pleaded guilty to threatening the daughters of President George W. Bush. He was convicted of slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat and stabbing her in the chest, and has threatened to “wage jihad” against various individuals.

Holt, who is Caucasian, is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, a name he took amid his conversion to Islam. Citing hadith, which are accounts of the statements made by the Prophet Muhammad, Holt said it was his religious obligation to grow a beard.

For legal support, Holt cited in part a successful case brought by California inmate Karluk Mayweathers, a 61-year-old Muslim inmate currently incarcerated at the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo. A Sacramento-based federal judge in 2004 sided with Mayweathers’ challenge to the state’s ban on inmate beards. A Sikh inmate in California, Sukhjinder S. Basra, likewise challenged the no-beard policy, prompting changes in 2011.

“There are some limits,” Assistant to the Solicitor General Anthony A. Yang stressed, in support of Holt, “and the state needs to provide some reasoned explanation in order to get deference.”

Holt took a remarkable path to the Supreme Court, starting with a handwritten petition he filed on his own behalf. Against all odds, the court plucked his challenge from among roughly 9,000 other petitions.

Myriad allies have since lined up in support of Holt, ranging from the Obama administration to a former warden at California’s San Quentin State Prison. On Tuesday, Holt was represented by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock, a prominent advocate in religious liberty cases.

“What we have in this case is an exaggerated fear,” Laycock said, adding that Arkansas offers “little evidence and no examples” of the alleged dangers presented by inmate beards.

Justice Clarence Thomas, as is his custom, was the only one of the nine justices not to speak or ask questions during the argument. A decision in the case is expected by June.