402 U.S. 99 (1971), 120, Ehlert v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 120
Citation:402 U.S. 99, 91 S.Ct. 1319, 28 L.Ed.2d 625
Party Name:Ehlert v. United States
Case Date:April 21, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 99

402 U.S. 99 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1319, 28 L.Ed.2d 625



United States

No. 120

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1971

Argued January 13, 1971




The refusal of petitioner's local board to reopen his classification and pass on his conscientious objector claim, made after mailing of his induction notice but before induction, on the basis of a Selective Service regulation that permitted post-induction notice reopening only for a "change in the registrant's status resulting from circumstances over which the registrant had no control," held not unreasonable as a limitation on the time within which a local board must act on such a claim, in light of the Government's assurance that one whose beliefs assertedly crystallize after mailing of an induction notice will have full opportunity to obtain an in-service determination of his claim without having to perform combatant training or service pending such disposition. Pp. 101-107. 422 F.2d 332, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACK, HARLAN, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 108. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 119.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a Selective Service local board must reopen the classification of a registrant who claims that his conscientious objection to war in any form crystallized between the mailing of his notice to report for induction and his scheduled induction date. The petitioner before us made no claim to conscientious objector status until after he received his induction notice. Before the induction date, he then wrote to his local board and asked to be allowed to present his claim. He represented that his views had matured only after the induction notice had made immediate the prospect of military service. After Selective Service proceedings not material here, the petitioner's local board notified him that it had declined to reopen his classification because the crystallization of his conscientious objection did not constitute the "change in the registrant's status resulting from circumstances over which the registrant had no control" required for post-induction notice reopening under a Selective Service regulation.1 The petitioner then refused to submit to induction, and a grand jury in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California indicted him for violation of the Military Selective Service Act of 1967.2

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The petitioner waived trial by jury, and the District Court, holding that ripening of conscientious objector views could not be a circumstance over which a registrant had no control, found the petitioner guilty. The conviction was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, and we granted certiorari, 397 U.S. 1074, to resolve a conflict among the circuits over the interpretation of the governing Selective Service regulation.3

[91 S.Ct. 1322] A regulation explicitly providing that no conscientious objector claim could be considered by a local board unless filed before the mailing of an induction notice would, we think, be perfectly valid, provided that no inductee could be ordered to combatant training or service before a prompt, fair, and proper in-service determination of his claim. The Military Selective Service Act of 1967 confers on the President authority "to prescribe the necessary rules and regulations to carry out the provisions of this title. . . ." 50 U.S.C.App. § 460(b)(1). To read out of the authority delegated by this section the power to make reasonable timeliness rules would render it impossible to require the submission, before mailing

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of an induction notice, of a claim matured before that time. The System needs and has the power to make reasonable timeliness rules for the presentation of claims to exemption from service.4

A regulation barring post-induction notice presentation of conscientious objector claims, with the proviso mentioned, would be entirely reasonable as a timeliness rule. Selective Service boards must already handle pre-notice claims, and the military has procedures for processing conscientious objector claims that mature in the service. Allocation of the burden of handling claims that first arise in the brief period between notice and induction seems well within the discretion of those concerned with choosing the most feasible means for operating the Selective Service and military systems. Further, requiring in-service presentation of post-notice claims would deprive no registrant of any legal right, and would not leave a "no man's land" time period in which a claim then arising could not be presented in any forum.

The only unconditional right conferred by statute upon conscientious objectors is exemption from combatant training and service.5 The Selective Service law, indeed, provides for noncombatant training and service for those objectors to whose induction there is no obstacle.6

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The right to civilian service "in lieu of . . . induction" arises only if a registrant's "claim is sustained by the local board." It does not follow, given the power to make reasonable timeliness rules, that a registrant has an unconditional right to present his claim to the local board before induction, any more than he has such a right after induction. Congress seems rather carefully to have confined the unconditional right created by the statute to immunity from combatant training and service. Consequently, requiring those whose conscientious objection has not crystallized until after their induction notices to present [91 S.Ct. 1323] their claims after induction would work no deprivation of statutory rights, so long as the claimants were not subjected to combatant training or service until their claims had been acted upon.

That those whose views are late in crystallizing can be required to wait, however, does not mean they can be deprived of a full and fair opportunity to present the merits of their conscientious objector claims for consideration under the same substantive criteria that must guide the Selective Service System. See Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333. The very assertion of crystallization just before induction might cast doubt upon the

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genuineness of some claims, but there is no reason to suppose that such claims could not be every bit as bona fide and substantial as the claims of those whose conscientious objection ripens before notice or after induction. It would be wholly arbitrary to deny the late crystallizer a full opportunity to obtain a determination on the merits of his claim to exemption from combatant training and service just because his conscientious scruples took shape during a brief period in legal limbo.7 A system in which such persons could present their claims after induction, with the assurance of no combatant training or service before opportunity for a ruling on the merits, would be wholly consistent with the conscientious objector statute.8

The regulation we must interpret in this case does not unambiguously create such a system. Rather, it bars post-notice reopening

unless the local board first specifically finds there has been a change in the registrant's status resulting from circumstances over which the registrant had no control.

It is clear that the regulation was meant to cover at least such nonvolitional changes as injury to the registrant or death in his family making him the sole surviving son. The Government urges that

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the regulation be confined to just such "objectively identifiable" and "extraneous" events and circumstances. The petitioner contends that post-notice crystallization of conscientious objection is both a "circumstance" within the meaning of the regulation and one over which the registrant has no control.

We need not take sides in the somewhat theological debates about the nature of "control" over one's own conscience that the phrasing of this regulation has forced upon so many federal courts. Rather, since the meaning of the language is not free from doubt, we are obligated to regard as controlling a reasonable, consistently applied administrative interpretation if the Government's be such. Immigration Service v. Stanisic, 395 U.S. 62, 72; Thorpe v. Housing Authority, 393 U.S. 268, 276; Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 16-17; Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410, 413-414.

The Government argues for an interpretation identical in effect with the unambiguous rule hypothecated above, which, we have said, would clearly be a reasonable timeliness rule, consistent with the conscientious objector statute. The Government's interpretation is a plausible construction of the language of [91 S.Ct. 1324] the actual regulation, though admittedly not the only possible one. Given the ambiguity of the language, it is wholly rational to confine it to those "objectively identifiable" and "extraneous" circumstances that are most likely to prove manageable without putting undue burdens on the administration of the Selective Service System. It appears, moreover, that this position has been consistently urged by the Government in litigation when it was not foreclosed by adverse local precedent.

There remains for consideration whether the conditions for the validity of such a rule, discussed above, are met in practice. It appears undisputed that, when an inductee

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presents a prima facie claim of conscientious objection that complies with timeliness rules for in service cognizability, he is given duty involving the minimum practicable conflict with his asserted beliefs.9 It is thus evident that armed forces policy substantially meets the...

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