Jay Schweikert is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. His research and advocacy focuses on accountability for prosecutors and law enforcement, plea bargaining, Sixth Amendment trial rights, and the provision and structuring of indigent defense. Before joining Cato, Jay spent four years doing civil and criminal litigation at Williams & Connolly LLP. He holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he was an Articles Editor for the Harvard Law Review, and chaired the Harvard Federalist Society’s student colloquium program. Following law school, Jay clerked for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He holds a B.A. in political science and economics from Yale University.

Supreme Court may be preparing to consider several major cases on qualified immunity

For the last couple of years, the Cato Institute, along with other public interest groups, academics, and lower court judges from across the ideological spectrum, has been urging the Supreme Court to reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity. This atextual, ahistorical doctrine — which shields public officials from liability, even when they break the law — was essentially invented out of whole cloth by the Supreme Court in 1967. And the modern version of the doctrine, in addition to being unjust and unlawful, has proven incapable of consistent, principled application in the lower courts. There is thus every reason for the Court to reconsider its precedent on this subject, as many of the Justices themselves have already suggested. And now, with several major qualified immunity cases on the horizon, it appears the Court may finally be preparing to take up the matter.

The main reason for my suspicion here has to do with recent developments in Baxter v. Bracey. This is the case where the Sixth Circuit granted qualified immunity to two officers who deployed a police dog against a suspect who had already surrendered and was sitting on the ground with his hands up. A prior case had held that it was unlawful to use a police dog without warning against an unarmed suspect laying on the ground with his hands at his sides. But despite the apparent similarity, the Sixth Circuit found this precedent insufficient to overcome qualified immunity because “Baxter does not point us to any case law suggesting that raising his hands, on its own, is enough to put [the defendant] on notice that a canine apprehension was unlawful in these circumstances” (emphasis added). In other words, prior case law holding unlawful the use of police dogs against non-threatening suspects who surrendered by laying on the ground did not clearly establish that it was unlawful to deploy police dogs against non-threatening suspects who surrendered by sitting on the ground with their hands up.

The ACLU filed a cert petition on behalf of Mr. Baxter, asking the Supreme Court to consider whether “the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity” should “be narrowed or abolished.” The Cato Institute filed a brief in support of this petition, as did a vast, cross-ideological array of other public interest groups and leading scholars of qualified immunity. The petition was originally set to be considered at the Supreme Court’s long conference on October 1st — that is, the first conference of the term, where the Justices resolve a large number of petitions that were submitted over the summer recess. Emma Andersson (one of the ACLU attorneys on the case) and I wrote a joint op-ed discussing the case back in July, and Law360 recently ran a detailed story on Baxter, asking “Could A Dog Bite Bring An End To Qualified Immunity?” All of us were holding our breath as the Supreme Court prepared to start its new term…

But then, something curious happened. On September 23rd, just a week before the Baxter cert petition was set to go to conference, the Court rescheduled the case for the conference of October 11th. (“Rescheduling” means the petition will be considered at a later date, and that the Justices have yet to formally consider it — as opposed to “relisting,” which happens after a petition has already been considered at conference.) Then, on October 8th, the case was rescheduled again — no conference date is listed on the docket yet, but the next scheduled conference would be October 18th.

Why is the Court repeatedly rescheduling Baxter? It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but I suspect the Court may be waiting to consider the case simultaneously with at least two other cert petitions which will also raise the question of whether qualified immunity should be reconsidered — specifically, those in Zadeh v. Robinson and Corbitt v. VickersZadeh is the case where the Fifth Circuit granted qualified immunity to state investigators that entered a doctor’s office and, without notice and without a warrant, demanded to rifle through the medical records of 16 patients. Judge Don Willett dissented in Zadeh, arguing that the Fourth Amendment violation in this case was “clearly established,” but also discussing his “broader unease with the real-world functioning of modern immunity practice.” And Corbitt is the case I discussed in detail here, in which the Eleventh Circuit granted immunity to a deputy sheriff who shot a ten-year-old child lying on the ground, while repeatedly attempting to shoot a pet dog that wasn’t posing any threat.

Cert petitions have yet to be filed in Zadeh or Corbitt. However, the civil rights plaintiffs in these cases are now both represented by Paul Hughes — co-chair of the Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group at McDermott Will & Emery — who has filed applications for extensions of time to file a cert petition in both cases. These applications explicitly state that the petitions will raise the question of “whether the doctrine of qualified immunity should be narrowed or revisited entirely,” which is essentially the exact same question in Baxter. And these applications were granted, respectively, on September 17th and September 20th — just days before the Baxter cert petition was rescheduled! Therefore, it seems quite likely to me that Court is planning to hold Baxter until around the time that the Zadeh and Corbitt cert petitions are also filed (which will likely be in mid-November), so that it can consider all three cases together. And that in turn suggests to me that the Justices are, at the very least, seriously considering the fundamental underlying question of whether qualified immunity should be considered.

Of course, this prediction is only speculation at this point, and even if the Justices are holding Baxter for something like the reasons I’ve sketched out above, that’s no guarantee that they’ll grant the petition. But this is, in my view, a promising development, especially in light of the Court’s disappointing denial of the cert petition in Doe v. Woodard (which also asked the Court to reconsider qualified immunity) at the end of the last term. Perhaps, for whatever reason, the Justices preferred Baxter et al. as the vehicle for taking up this question. Or perhaps they’ve realized that this issue is simply not going away. But by the end of this term, I suspect that we’ll have a much clearer sense, for better or worse, of whether the Supreme Court intends to correct the unlawful, unworkable, and unjust doctrine it has foisted upon us all.

Eleventh Circuit grants immunity to officer who shot a child lying on the ground, while trying to shoot a harmless dog

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Corbitt v. Vickers, handed down last week, constitutes one of the most grotesque and indefensible applications of the qualified immunity I’ve ever seen. The case involves a claim of excessive force against Michael Vickers, a deputy sheriff in Coffee County, Georgia, who shot a ten-year-old child lying on the ground, while repeatedly attempting to shoot a pet dog that wasn’t posing any threat. Without even deciding the constitutional question, a majority of the Eleventh Circuit panel granted qualified immunity to Vickers, simply because there was no case on point with this particular set of facts.

The key facts as alleged in the complaint are as follows: Vickers and other officers were pursuing a criminal suspect, Christopher Barnett, when Barnett wandered into the backyard of Amy Corbitt (who had no relation to Barnett). At the time, one adult and six minor children were in the yard, and the officers demanded they all get on the ground. Everyone immediately complied, and the police took Barnett into custody.

But then, the family’s pet dog Bruce walked into the scene. Without provocation or any immediate threat, Vickers fired his weapon at Bruce. His first shot missed, and Bruce retreated under the home. About ten seconds later, Bruce reappeared and approached his owners, and Vickers fired again – missing once more, but this time striking Corbitt’s ten-year-old child, who was at the time still lying on the ground only 18 inches away. The bullet tore through the back of the child’s knee, causing serious injuries. The child suffered severe pain and mental trauma and has to receive ongoing care from an orthopedic surgeon.

Corbitt, individually and on behalf of her child, filed a lawsuit against Vickers under Section 1983, the text of which guarantees that any state actor who violates someone’s constitutional rights “shall be liable to the party injured.” Vickers filed a motion to dismiss, but the district court held that he wasn’t entitled to qualified immunity, emphasizing that the facts as alleged in the complaint indicated that there was no conceivable safety threat or any need to discharge his weapon at the family’s dog.

But in a split decision, the Eleventh Circuit panel reversed, holding that Vickers was entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Judge R. Lanier Anderson, for the majority, said that there was no prior case law involving the “unique facts of this case,” in which a child was accidentally shot while the officer was intending to shoot someone (or something) else. Although the majority dutifully recited Supreme Court precedent purporting to say that overcoming qualified immunity does not require that “the very action in question has previously been held unlawful,” it is clear from the rest of the opinion that the majority was, indeed, requiring this level of specificity:

No case capable of clearly establishing the law for this case holds that a temporarily seized person—as was [the child] in this case—suffers a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights when an officer shoots at a dog—or any other object—and accidentally hits the person.

Given the shockingly reckless nature of Vickers’ actions here, it is of course unsurprising that no prior case involving precisely this sort of misconduct. The majority’s analysis vindicates the stinging criticism of Fifth Circuit Judge Don Willett, who recently stated in another case that “[t]o 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.”

To add insult to injury, the majority here took the common but cowardly option of declining even to decide the constitutional question, ensuring that the law will not be “clearly established” going forward either. In other words, Vickers could commit the exact same sort of misconduct tomorrow and receive qualified immunity yet again. Despite the majority’s reluctant finger-wagging that Vickers “could have acted more carefully” (!), the practical bottom line is the federal judiciary green-lighting some of the most reckless police misconduct imaginable.

The case did provoke a powerful dissent from Judge Charles Wilson, who appropriately began his opinion by noting that “[b]ecause no competent officer would fire his weapon in the direction of a nonthreatening pet while that pet was surrounded by children, qualified immunity should not protect Officer Vickers.” The dissent also took the majority to task for dismissing the “conclusory” allegation that the family pet was non-threatening. To the contrary, the complaint specifically alleged that the dog “posed no threat,” that “[no]one appear[ed] to be threatened by its presence,” and that it was merely “approaching his owners” at the time Officer Vickers fired. Of course, if the case had actually been permitted to go to a jury, Vickers would have had the opportunity to dispute these allegations. But by dismissing the case outright on the basis of qualified immunity, the majority short-circuited the exact mechanism — a public jury trial — that is supposed to ensure accountability for public officials.

The result in Corbitt is especially atrocious, but far from unique. As David French has already noted, this case it is not simply an unfortunate outlier, but rather an illustrative example of why “it’s time to rethink qualified immunity entirely.” The doctrine has no legal basis in either the text or history of Section 1983, severely undermines official accountability, and routinely results in morally indefensible decisions. I hope the Supreme Court is listening.

Cato Files Brief Challenging Qualified Immunity for Warrantless Strip Search of 4-Year-Old

For over a year, Cato has been leading the charge to challenge the doctrine of qualified immunity: an atextual, ahistorical doctrine invented by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, which shields government agents from liability for misconduct – even when they break the law. Today marks a huge milestone in that ongoing campaign, as Cato has just filed an amicus brief in support of a new cert petition calling on the Court to reconsider this doctrine. So has a diverse, cross-ideological alliance of over a dozen prominent public interest groups, as well a group of leading qualified immunity scholars. In the words of Wyatt Earp: “You called down the thunder. Well, now you’ve got it!

The case at issue is I.B. and Doe v. Woodard. When I.B. was a four-year-old girl, she was strip searched and photographed at her preschool by April Woodard, a state caseworker. Woodard had neither a warrant, nor the consent of the girl or her mother, nor were there any exigent circumstances requiring such an invasive search. All she had were unfounded abuse allegations (specifically, of a few marks and bruises on I.B.) which easily could have been checked and disproven through a non-invasive search. After I.B. complained to her mother about what happened, Woodard denied having performed a search at all, and continued to lie about that fact for several weeks, until finally admitting what she had done. I.B. suffered severe and ongoing emotional trauma as a result of being strip-searched and photographed against her will.

I.B. and her mother filed a Section 1983 suit against Woodard (and others), alleging violations of I.B.’s Fourth Amendment rights. But a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit held that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, because Woodard’s strip search did not violate “clearly established law.” The court failed to even address the Fourth Amendment claims on the merits, noting only that (1) there was a circuit split on whether a warrant was necessary under these circumstances, and (2) assuming a warrant wasn’t necessary, it was still not “clearly established” whether this sort of strip search was permissible. This latter holding is particular shocking, because the Supreme Court itself recently addressed this exact subject matter (warrantless strip searches of children in schools) in Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding. In Safford, the Court even said it was seeking “to make it clear” that an intrusive strip search of a child was justifiable only with “specific suspicions” that evidence of danger or wrongdoing will be found in the area searched. For this reason, Judge Briscoe dissented in part from the Tenth Circuit’s decision, and would have held that I.B.’s strip search violated “clearly established law,” as stated in Safford.

The Tenth Circuit’s decision exemplifies everything that is perverse and unjust about qualified immunity. I.B. had her constitutional rights violated in an egregious manner, yet she was left without a remedy because of a fictitious doctrine, with no grounding in the text or history of Section 1983. The Tenth Circuit refused to even decide whether her constitutional rights were violated in the first place, and it applied the “clearly established law” test so strictly that a seemingly on-point Supreme Court case concerning nearly identical circumstances was still insufficient to overcome qualified immunity.

I.B. and her mother are now represented by Scott Keller, chair of Supreme Court practice at Baker Botts, and they’ve filed a powerful cert petition, asking the Supreme Court both to resolve the Fourth Amendment questions at issue here, but also to reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity itself. Today, Cato filed an amicus brief in support of that petition, arguing that qualified immunity lacks any proper legal or historical basis, and that it is not entitled to respect under the doctrine of stare decisis. Specifically, we explain how (1) the “clearly established law” standard is so malleable and indefinite that it has failed to create the kind of stability and predictability that justify respect for precedent in the first place; (2) that the Supreme Court itself has already made major modifications to qualified immunity over the years, and therefore should have no qualms about reconsidering the doctrine now (but this time to bring it line with the statute Congress actually passed); and (3) that allowing the status quo to continue severely undermines public accountability and effectively subjects citizens to ongoing constitutional violations.

Ours is far from the only brief being filed today, however – we’ve also helped coordinate the drafting and filing of two additional amicus briefs. The first is on behalf of a group of leading qualified immunity scholars, who discuss the academic consensus that the Court’s qualified immunity doctrine is in serious need of correction. The second is on behalf of a diverse array of groups from across the ideological and professional spectrum, who nevertheless all share a common interest in ensuring that government officials are held accountable for their misconduct. This brief was joined by all of the following groups: the ACLU, Alliance Defending Freedom, American Association for Justice, Americans for Prosperity, Due Process Institute, Institute for Justice, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, MacArthur Justice Center, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Public Justice, R Street Institute, Reason, and the Second Amendment Foundation. Take a moment and consider just how egregiously misguided a Supreme Court doctrine has to be to unite all of these organizations in opposition, on a single brief. (Note also that several other groups have filed additional amicus briefs asking the Court to take the case, although we weren’t specifically involved with those.)

All in all, this case represents one of the most promising opportunities in the ongoing fight against qualified immunity. It highlights the sort of gross injustice that the doctrine regularly permits, demonstrates just how much cross-ideological consensus there is on this issue, and presents the Court with an ideal vehicle for restoring Section 1983 to its proper stature. We can only hope the Court answers the call.

Yet another federal judge tears into qualified immunity, citing Cato Institute & Will Baude

The legal blogosphere has been abuzz with Judge Willett’s recent “dubitante” concurrence in Zadeh v. Robinson, in which the Twitter superstar and Supreme Court shortlister urged reconsideration of the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity. Yet just one day before that decision was released, another federal judge — James O. Browning, in the District of New Mexico — issued his own blistering criticism of the doctrine, as a four-paragraph footnote to his order in Manzanares v. Roosevelt County Adult Detention Center, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147840 (D. N.M. Aug. 30, 2018). To my knowledge, however, that decision has so far flown entirely under the radar, notwithstanding that cross-ideological opposition to qualified immunity is steadily growing.

The Manzanares case involved a municipal employee’s Section 1983 claims against state prison officials, who paired him with a violent inmate to assist in his maintenance work at the prison; these prison officials, in turn, claimed qualified immunity. The plaintiff’s claims here weren’t very strong on the merits, and the district court ended up holding that there wasn’t any due process violation in the first place.

What makes this case extraordinary, however, is Judge Browning’s general discussion of qualified immunity. After he sets forth the relevant legal precedent, he drops a footnote (Footnote 10, if you’re reading along), which consists of a comprehensive, four-paragraph criticism of the doctrine. Not only does he cite Will Baude’s game-changing article on the (lack of) legal justifications for qualified immunity, but he also quotes extensively from Cato’s amicus brief in Pauly v. White. Footnote 10 is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a cleaned up excerpt of the most important points (with emphases added):

[T]he Supreme Court has sent unwritten signals to the lower courts that a factually identical or a highly similar factual case is required for the law to be clearly established, and the Tenth Circuit is now sending those unwritten signals to the district courts . . . .

Factually identical or highly similar factual cases are not, however, the way the real world works. Cases differ. Many cases have so many facts that are unlikely to ever occur again in a significantly similar way. . . . The Supreme Court’s obsession with the clearly established prong assumes that officers are routinely reading Supreme Court and Tenth Circuit opinions in their spare time, carefully comparing the facts in these qualified immunity cases with the circumstances they confront in their day-to-day police work. It is hard enough for the federal judiciary to embark on such an exercise, let alone likely that police officers are endeavoring to parse opinions. . . . It strains credulity to believe that a reasonable officer, as he is approaching a suspect to arrest, is thinking to himself: “Are the facts here anything like the facts in York v. City of Las Cruces?” . . .

The Court disagrees with the Supreme Court’s approach. The most conservative, principled decision is to minimize the expansion of the judicially created clearly established prong, so that it does not eclipse the congressionally enacted § 1983 remedy. As the Cato Institute noted in a recent amicus brief, “qualified immunity has increasingly diverged from the statutory and historical framework on which it is supposed to be based.” Pauly v. White, No. 17-1078 Brief of the Cato Institute as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioners at 2, (U.S. Supreme Court, filed Mar. 2, 2018)()(“Cato Brief”). “The text of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 . . . makes no mention of immunity, and the common law of 1871 did not include any across-the-board defense for all public officials.” Cato Brief at 2. “With limited exceptions, the baseline assumption at the founding and throughout the nineteenth century was that public officials were strictly liable for unconstitutional misconduct. Judges and scholars alike have thus increasingly arrived at the conclusion that the contemporary doctrine of qualified immunity is unmoored from any lawful justification.” Cato Brief at 2. See generally William Baude, Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?, 106 Cal. L. Rev. 45 (2018)(arguing that the Supreme Court’s justifications for qualified immunity are incorrect).

Moreover, in a day when police shootings and excessive force cases are in the news, there should be a remedy when there is a constitutional violation, and jury trials are the most democratic expression of what police action is reasonable and what action is excessive. If the citizens of New Mexico decide that state actors used excessive force or were deliberately indifferent, the verdict should stand, not be set aside because the parties could not find an indistinguishable Tenth Circuit or Supreme Court decision. . . .

I could scarcely have written a more powerful critique of qualified immunity myself.

Also, for those who care about such things, Judge Browning was appointed by George W. Bush, in 2003. The ideological and jurisprudential breadth of the many judges who have criticized qualified immunity (which now include appointees of every single President since Carter, as well as one of the two remaining LBJ appointees) mirrors the ideological and professional breadth of the huge array of groups that have asked the Court to reconsider the doctrine. Indeed, the increasingly relevant question now may not be who will oppose qualified immunity, but who will defend it?

The campaign against qualified immunity is steadily expanding

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.

 

The Tenth Circuit’s cowardly refusal to decide whether 20 years in solitary violated prisoner’s constitutional rights

Solitary confinement is one of the cruelest, most severe conditions that our criminal justice system may impose on prisoners. The combination of tiny cells (sealed to block all outside light and sound), lack of human interaction, and extremely limited access to the outside world add up to a treatment that is a mere stone’s throw from outright sensory deprivation torture. The long-term, injurious effects on prisoners for even short periods of such confinement, in terms of both physical and mental health, is extremely well documented. If this practice has any legitimate role in our penal system, it should only be as a last resort in the most extreme and dangerous cases.

But in an act of outright barbarism, Kansas prison officials kept Richard Grissom in extreme solitary confinement conditions for twenty years — for essentially no penological reason. Mr. Grissom was, to be sure, a convicted murderer serving four consecutive life sentences, but his placement in solitary had nothing to do with any history, or even alleged risk, of violence toward prison staff or other inmates. Rather, these decades of practical torture were based entirely on allegations that he was trafficking drugs — in 1996. Over the course of his confinement, twenty-five different segregation reviews gave exactly one “reason” for his continued treatment: “Placement facts still apply.”

In light of this outrageous and unjustified treatment, Mr. Grissom brought a civil rights lawsuit against several prison officials, alleging violations of his constitutional due process rights (among other claims). But when his case came before the Tenth Circuit, the court rejected his claims, and granted qualified immunity to the defendants, based on that all-too-common refrain: that their conduct did not violate “clearly established law,” because Mr. Grissom didn’t identify a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit case directly on point.

But to make matters worse, the Tenth Circuit refused even to say whether there was a constitutional violation in the first place. Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, plaintiffs must show both that there was a violation of their constitutional rights, and that those rights were “clearly established.” But in the 2009 decision Pearson v. Callahan, the Supreme Court said that courts are allowed to decide these issues in either order. In other words, a court can say “whether or not this was actually unlawful, it didn’t violate clearly established law, so we grant qualified immunity.” The perverse result of this approach is that, by holding only that the law was not clearly established, the law does not become clearly established — a vicious circle.

By refusing to address the merits of Mr. Grissom’s claims, the Tenth Circuit has essentially given the green light to all prison officials in its jurisdiction to proceed with such reckless, abusive treatment of prisoners. The court’s cowardly balk on this question is all the more offensive because it is not even that difficult a question in the first place. One member of the three-judge panel — Carlos Lucero — wrote separately to say that, while he agreed the law was not clearly established, he would have first held that Mr. Grissom’s constitutional rights were, in fact, violated. But the panel majority — although offering no objection to Judge Lucero’s analysis — refused to say as much, which means that prisoners in the Tenth Circuit will continue to have their rights violated with impunity.

Compare this case to that of Allah v. Milling, in which a prisoner alleged due process violations after being kept in solitary confinement for “only” seven months, without justification. There, while the Second Circuit erroneously granted qualified immunity to the defendants, it at least had the decency to first hold that Mr. Allah’s rights were violated. But here, where Mr. Grissom spent, not seven months, but twenty years in solitary — with similarly insufficient justification — the Tenth Circuit refused to even make a decision on the merits.

This case therefore vividly illustrates the grotesque nature of qualified immunity — a made-up doctrine that lacks any valid textual or historical basis. Not only does it deny justice to victims whose rights are violated, but it also eviscerates accountability for public officials — especially when courts, like the Tenth Circuit here, refuse to even decide whether those officials were breaking the law. Until and unless this doctrine is abolished — either by the Supreme Court or Congress — similar injustices will continue to abound.

Openings in the Front in the Campaign Against Qualified Immunity

I’ve blogged several times now about Cato’s ongoing campaign to challenge the doctrine of qualified immunity. This judge-made doctrine — invented out of whole cloth, at odds with the text of Section 1983, and unsupported by the common-law history against which that statute was passed — shields public officials from liability for unlawful misconduct, unless the plaintiff can show that the misconduct violated “clearly established law.” This standard is incredibly difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to overcome, because courts generally require not just a clear legal rule, but a prior case on the books with functionally identical facts. Not only does this doctrine deny relief to victims whose rights have been violated, but at a structural level, it also erodes accountability for government agents (especially law enforcement).

I’m thrilled to report, however, that in the last 36 hours, we’ve had three promising developments in this front:

First, in a Section 1983 case in the Eastern District of New York, Judge Jack Weinstein denied qualified immunity to police officers alleged to have beaten up a man after he refused to allow them to enter his home without a warrant. His comprehensive opinion not only denied immunity in this case, but also discussed recent criticisms of the doctrine, both on legal and policy grounds, and suggested that the law “must return to a state where some effective remedy is available for serious infringement of constitutional rights.” Judge Weinstein thus joins other lower court judges, like Lynn Adelman of the Eastern District of Wisconsin and Jon O. Newman of the Second Circuit, who have criticized the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity jurisprudence. Lower court judges are, of course, obliged to follow Supreme Court precedent with direct application, but this is exactly the kind of criticism and commentary that can help explain to the Court why that precedent should be reconsidered.

Second, Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA, has just put up on SSRN a forthcoming article in the Notre Dame Law Review, titled The Case Against Qualified Immunity. Professor Schwartz previously published an influential article in the Yale Law Journal called How Qualified Immunity Fails, which empirically demonstrates how the doctrine of qualified immunity is failing to achieve its professed purposes. But her latest piece weaves together the legal, historical, and prudential arguments against the doctrine, and argues that the Supreme Court can and should reconsider it. We know that the Supreme Court pays attention to scholarship in this area, as both Justice Thomas and Justice Sotomayor have recently cited Will Baude’s article Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?, so I have every expectation that Professor Schwartz’s comprehensive broadside will likewise be taken seriously by the courts. (Professor Schwartz is also blogging about her new article at the Volokh Conspiracy this week.)

Third, this morning the Supreme Court ordered a response to the cert petition in Allah v. Milling, which explicitly asks the Court to reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity. This is the case I recently blogged about, and in which Cato filed an amicus brief, where a pretrial detainee was kept in extreme solitary confinement for nearly seven months, for no legitimate reason. Although every single judge in his case agreed that Mr. Allah’s constitutional rights were violated, a split panel of the Second Circuit granted qualified immunity to the prison officials, simply because there was no prior case holding that the “particular practice” used by this prison was unlawful. The case is an ideal vehicle for the Court to reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity, because there are no disputed facts, and Mr. Allah has already won a judgment at trial, so the outcome turns solely on the legal question of whether the defendants should get immunity for their unlawful misconduct.

“Calling for a response” doesn’t necessarily mean that the Court is going to hear the case, but it’s a sign that they’re looking at it closely. The defendants in this case tried to waive their right to respond to the cert petition (a common practice, because respondents want to avoid signaling that the case is important), but the Court basically said “no, this is important enough that we want to hear your argument about why we shouldn’t take the case.” The defendants will therefore be required to put forward actual legal justifications for qualified immunity — so we’ll see what they come up with. The response is due July 11th, and Mr. Allah will then get the chance to file a reply, so I’ll be sure to cover those briefs when they come in.

Overall then, the fight continues, but we’ve got some promising signs of real progress.

This post was originally written at Cato At Liberty.

Challenging Qualified Immunity for Prison Officials Who Kept a Man in Solitary for No Reason

Our primary federal civil rights statute, colloquially called “Section 1983,” says that any state actor who violates someone’s constitutional rights may be sued in federal court. This remedy is crucial not just to secure relief for individuals whose rights are violated, but also to ensure accountability for government agents. Yet the Supreme Court has crippled the functioning of this statute through the judge-made doctrine of “qualified immunity.” This doctrine — at odds with both the text of the statute and the common law principles against which it was passed — immunizes public officials who commit illegal misconduct, unless they violated “clearly established law.” That standard is incredibly difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to overcome, because courts generally require not just a clear legal rule, but a prior case on the books with functionally identical facts.

In Allah v. Milling, 876 F.3d 48 (2d Cir. 2017), the Second Circuit used qualified immunity to shield prison officials who kept an inmate, named Almighty Supreme Born Allah, in dungeon-like, solitary confinement conditions for seven months — all because Mr. Allah had once asked a question about why prison inmates were being denied access to commissary. For this “offense,” Mr. Allah was placed in “Administration Segregation” for over a year, most of which he spent in solitary confinement. He spent 23 hours a day alone in his cell, was handcuffed and shackled anytime he was removed from his cell, and forced to shower in leg irons and wet underwear. To make matters worse, Mr. Allah was, at this time, merely a pretrial detainee who had yet to be convicted of a crime.

Mr. Allah brought a civil rights claim against these prison officials and won a judgment of $62,650 at trial. On appeal, the Second Circuit unanimously agreed that the defendants had violated Mr. Allah’s constitutional rights. The Supreme Court’s decision in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), makes clear that pretrial detainees cannot be subject to punitive restrictions, and that extreme restrictions unsupported by any legitimate governments are inherently punitive. The Second Circuit held that the prison officials here lacked any legitimate interest in throwing Mr. Allah in solitary confinement, and thus violated his due process rights.

Yet a majority of the panel still granted immunity to the defendants — and denied Mr. Allah redress for his injuries — solely because “Defendants were following an established [prison] practice,” and “[n]o prior decision of the Supreme Court or of this Court . . . has assessed the constitutionality of that particular practice.” That analysis is flatly at odds with existing precedent; even the Supreme Court has rejected the idea that overcoming qualified immunity requires a prior case dealing with the very action at issue. Indeed, in Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 377 (2009), the Court explicitly stated that “there is no need that ‘the very action in question [have] previously been held unlawful.’” 

But more importantly, this case throws into sharp relief the legal, practical, and moral infirmities with qualified immunity in general. Mr. Allah’s petition directly asks the Court to reconsider its qualified immunity jurisprudence, and the Cato Institute has filed an amicus brief in support of this request. This brief is part of Cato’s ongoing campaign to challenge qualified immunity — a doctrine that lacks any legal basis, vitiates the power of individuals to vindicate their constitutional rights, and contributes to a culture of near-zero accountability for law enforcement and other public officials.

This post was originally written for Cato at Liberty.

Qualified Immunity: The Supreme Court’s Unlawful Assault on Civil Rights and Police Accountability

Our primary federal civil rights statute, colloquially called “Section 1983,” says that any state actor who violates someone’s constitutional rights may be sued in federal court. This remedy is crucial not just to secure relief for individuals whose rights are violated, but also to ensure accountability for government agents. Yet the Supreme Court has crippled the functioning of this statute through the judge-made doctrine of “qualified immunity.” This doctrine, invented by the Court out of whole cloth, immunizes public officials even when they commit illegal misconduct unless they violated “clearly established law.” That standard is incredibly difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to overcome because the courts have required not just a clear legal rule, but a prior case on the books with functionally identical facts.

In Pauly v. White, 874 F.3d 1197 (10th Cir. 2017), the Tenth Circuit used qualified immunity to shield three police officers who brutally killed an innocent man in his home. The officers had no probable cause to think Samuel Pauly had committed any crime, but they stormed his home with guns drawn and shouted that they had him surrounded—yet failed to identify themselves as police. Mr. Pauly and his brother reasonably believed they were in danger and retrieved two guns to defend themselves. After his brother Daniel fired two warning shots to scare away the unidentified attackers, Samuel was shot dead by one of the officers—Ray White—through the front window of his home.

The Tenth Circuit held that Officer White’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable and that it “violated Samuel Pauly’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force.” But the court still granted Officer White qualified immunity; there was no prior case with sufficiently similar facts, so the unreasonableness of his conduct was not “clearly established,” in the court’s view. What’s more, the court held that because Officer White had qualified immunity, the other two officers automatically received immunity as well, even though their own reckless conduct caused Officer White to commit the unlawful shooting.

This decision was erroneous even under existing precedent, but it also throws into sharp relief the shaky legal rationales for qualified immunity in general. The text of Section 1983 makes no mention of any sort of immunity, and the common-law background against which it was adopted did not include a freestanding defense for public officials who acted unlawfully; on the contrary, the historical rule was that public officials were strictly liable for constitutional violations. In short, qualified immunity has become nothing more than a “freewheeling policy choice” by the Court, at odds with Congress’s judgment in enacting Section 1983.

The Cato Institute has therefore filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hear Mr. Pauly’s case and to reconsider its misguided qualified immunity jurisprudence. This brief will be the first of many in an ongoing campaign to demonstrate to the courts that this doctrine lacks any legal basis, vitiates the power of individuals to vindicate their constitutional rights, and contributes to a culture of near-zero accountability for law enforcement and other public officials.