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Ropes & Gray’s Appeal Before the Fifth Circuit Results in Successful Reversal of District Court Decision Regarding Inmate’s Religious Exercise

Practices: Appellate & Supreme Court, Litigation Tags: Pro Bono

On July 11, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Ropes & Gray’s client, plaintiff George Lee Tucker, II. Mr. Tucker is a Texas inmate challenging the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s categorical ban on his religious exercise.

The case was originally filed pro se by Mr. Tucker against Texas prison officials for their refusal to allow congregation by adherents of the Nation of Gods and Earths, a group that broke off from the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. In 2015, the district court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment based upon the State’s assertions that the group is associated with racial supremacy, a decision from which Mr. Tucker appealed pro se. On appeal in 2018, the Fifth Circuit appointed Ropes & Gray as pro bono counsel and ultimately vacated summary judgment for the State and remanded to district court.  On remand, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, during which the State argued for the first time that Mr. Tucker’s claim became moot only days before due to a purported change in the prison’s treatment of Nation of Gods and Earths adherents.  In January 2020, the district court rule in favor of the State, entering a judgment on the ground that the case became moot and jurisdiction no longer existed.

On appeal from the district court’s decision, the Ropes & Gray pro bono team representing Mr. Tucker argued that Mr. Tucker’s claim is not moot, given that the State has never rescinded its racial supremacy determination, scheduled or held separate congregation, or advised Mr. Tucker of intentions or plans to do so.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with these arguments, holding that Mr. Tucker’s claim “cannot possibly be moot,” given that the State has never granted Mr. Tucker the relief he seeks. The Fifth Circuit also clarified that in order for the State to successfully moot Mr. Tucker’s claim, it would have had to cease its wrongful conduct, and make “absolutely clear” that the conduct could not reasonably be expected to recur.

The Ropes & Gray pro bono team representing Mr. Tucker includes IP litigation partner Kevin Post, health care associate Samuel Perrone, litigation & enforcement associates Aedan DunnChloe Gordils, and Caroline McHugh.

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