You would be hard pressed to find an issue that unites a wider and more diverse set of allies than opposition to qualified immunity. Justices Thomas and Sotomayor (joined by Justice Ginsburg) have both criticized the doctrine, as have a growing chorus of diverse lower-court judges — including newly appointed Judge Don Willett, of the Fifth Circuit. And recall that the recent amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to reconsider the doctrine was quite possibly the most diverse brief ever filed with the Court (including, among many others, the ACLU, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Second Amendment Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the NACDL, and the Institute for Justice).
And as the Supreme Court sits in recess, the drumbeat only continues to grow louder and more insistent. The Notre Dame Law Review dedicated its most recent issue to the future of qualified immunity, and nearly all of the articles are highly critical. And in the popular press, in the last three days alone, we’ve seen powerful critiques of qualified immunity from a wide range of platforms and commentators.
First, at Above the Law, Tyler Broker has written about how “Qualified Immunity Empowers Constitutional Violations, But That Can Change…“. His piece begins by asking, “What if I told you a statute passed by Congress intended to create a cause of action against public officials for constitutional violations has been transformed by the Supreme Court into a doctrine that immunizes public officials from constitutional violations leaving victims remediless?” That is not an exaggeration or a colorful shading, but an exact description of how the Supreme Court has taken a straightforward statute, plainly providing that any state official who violates someone’s rights “shall be liable to the party injured,” and concocted an atextual, ahistorical doctrine that shields from liability even those officials that break the law.
Next, in the New Republic, Matt Ford asks “Should Cops Be Immune From Lawsuits?” Although qualified immunity protects all public officials, not just law enforcement, it most frequently (and often, most tragically) arises when police officers abuse their authority, commit egregious constitutional violations, but nonetheless escape any consequences. Ford explains how the diverse critics of qualified immunity have “raised concerns about the impact of the [Supreme Court]’s qualified-immunity rulings when it comes to police shootings,” and also how the doctrine is “under siege from originalists, who argue that the court’s purported historical basis for qualified immunity appears to be groundless.”
Finally, just earlier today in the National Review, David French bluntly states “End Qualified Immunity.” In describing the absurdity of the Supreme Court’s “clearly established law” standard, French correctly notes that, under modern qualified immunity doctrine, a plaintiff must show not just that their rights were violated, but also must “find and cite a remarkably similar case, with nearly identical facts, decided by a court of controlling jurisdiction.” As Judge Willett put it: “To some observers, qualified immunity smacks of unqualified impunity, letting public officials duck consequences for bad behavior — no matter how palpably unreasonable — as long as they were the first to behave badly.”
The overall message from these many different voices is quite clear: qualified immunity is unlawful, unjust, and impractical — and its days are numbered.