Reuters Report Shows How The Supreme Court Has Turned Qualified Immunity Lawsuits Into A Rigged Game
from the making-a-malfunctioning-system-even-worse dept
Reuters has published an in-depth report on qualified immunity, the Supreme Court-created legal doctrine that allows law enforcement officers to avoid being held responsible for rights violations, so long as they’ve taken care to violate rights in a way courts haven’t previously directly addressed.
The problem originates with the Supreme Court, which established this new quasi-right in a 1967 decision stating that police officers could be granted immunity for rights violations if they acted in “good faith.” But it really didn’t start going off the rails until 15 years later. In 1982, the Supreme Court expanded this protection, adding the “clearly established law” prong that has derailed countless civil rights lawsuits in the following forty years.
It’s this prong that makes it incredibly difficult for plaintiffs to prevail. Without a case exactly on point, the rights violations are overlooked as not being “clearly established.” And since courts are under no longer under any obligation to reach that far in their rulings, very few rights violations become “clearly established,” allowing cops to violate rights with near impunity and force citizens to fund their defense in the resulting lawsuits.
It’s this Supreme Court-encouraged stasis that Fifth Circuit Appeals Court judge Don Williett called out in a stinging dissent.
Section 1983 meets Catch-22. Plaintiffs must produce precedent even as fewer courts are producing precedent. Important constitutional questions go unanswered precisely because those questions are yet unanswered. Courts then rely on that judicial silence to conclude there’s no equivalent case on the books. No precedent = no clearly established law = no liability. An Escherian Stairwell. Heads defendants win, tails plaintiffs lose.
What was already problematic was made even worse by the Supreme Court a little over a decade ago. Its ruling narrowed qualified immunity discussions to this single point, allowing court after court to avoid making any findings about the underlying rights violations.
The Supreme Court in 2009 raised the bar even higher for plaintiffs to overcome qualified immunity. In Pearson v. Callahan, it gave judges the option to simply ignore the question of whether a cop used excessive force and instead focus solely on whether the conduct was clearly established as unlawful.
In the decade since then, the Reuters analysis found, appeals courts have increasingly ignored the question of excessive force. In such cases, when the court declines to establish whether police used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, it avoids setting a clearly established precedent for future cases, even for the most egregious acts of police violence. In effect, the same conduct can repeatedly go unpunished.
That’s the Catch-22 Judge Willett described. Since the discussion of the rights violation is limited to whether or not a court has declared that particular rights violation unlawful, courts look only for precedent on point, rather than establish any new precedent of their own. If courts do decide to establish precedent, or determine a previous case not exactly on point addresses the violations in the case in front of them, they’re likely to see their decisions overturned by the Supreme Court.
Qualified immunity is the Supreme Court’s baby. Understandably, it’s done all it can to protect it. It has admonished courts for interpreting precedent too broadly. And it has shown a clear preference for giving officers stripped of immunity a chance to win it back.
Over the past 15 years, the high court took up 12 appeals of qualified immunity decisions from police, but only three from plaintiffs, even though plaintiffs asked the court to review nearly as many cases as police did. The court’s acceptance rate for police appeals seeking immunity was three times its average acceptance rate for all appeals. For plaintiffs’ appeals, the acceptance rate was slightly below the court’s average.
Nearly every decision has favored law enforcement officers. Given the way the system is set up, this outcome is unsurprising.
The high court has also put its thumb on the scale by repeatedly tweaking the process. It has allowed police to request immunity before all evidence has been presented. And if police are denied immunity, they can appeal immediately – an option unavailable to most other litigants, who typically must wait until after a final judgment to appeal.
This has resulted in appeals courts finding in favor of officers 57% over the last two years. This contrasts with cases heard prior to the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision. Before that decision, the situation was nearly reversed, with courts finding in favor of plaintiffs 56% of the time.
Much of the point swing since 2009 can be directly attributed to the Supreme Court’s “clearly established” focus. As the percentage of wins for plaintiffs has dropped from 57% to 43%, the percentage of cases where the question of excessive force has been ignored completely has grown to consume much of that 14 point difference.
This is based on the reporters’ examination of 529 appellate cases published between 2005 and 2019. It also includes every qualified immunity case the Supreme Court chose to rule on or ignore.
If there’s any good news, it’s this: the Supreme Court may be reconsidering its continuous expansion of this self-created legal doctrine.
The high court has indicated it is aware of the mounting criticism of its treatment of qualified immunity. After letting multiple appeals backed by the doctrine’s critics pile up, the justices are scheduled to discuss privately as soon as May 15 which, if any, of 11 such cases they could hear later this year.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the court’s most liberal members, and Clarence Thomas, its most conservative, have in recent opinions sharply criticized qualified immunity and the court’s role in expanding it.
Unfortunately, no one’s really sure what the best approach to fixing qualified immunity might be. There’s zero chance the court will decide to eliminate it completely or severely limit its reach. But it could at least reestablish the examination of excessive force issues it has encouraged courts to ignore, allowing more violations to be clearly established. This would result in more plaintiffs seeing restitution and, hopefully, fewer police officers engaging in rights violations since the courts will no longer be quite as stacked in their favor. Whatever the case, the public isn’t being served by this judicial doctrine, which has done nothing to limit deployments of excessive force or encourage officers to exercise restraint in questionable situations.