Legal Briefs

Connick v. Thompson

If a man is wrongfully convicted and held on death row for 18 years — 14 in solitary confinement — because prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in his case, is there any reason that courts should keep him from recovering damages simply because the local government had not established a pattern of constitutional violations? Eighteen years after John Thompson was convicted of murder and kept from testifying at his trial due to a previous armed robbery conviction, investigators found exculpatory evidence from the armed robbery that prosecutors had failed to turn over to Thompson’s defense team. After being acquitted of the murder charge, Thompson sued the parish district attorney for violating his civil rights and was awarded $14 million in damages. The parish appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that a single violation of civil rights does not give rise to government liability without showing a pattern of violations or without demonstrating a direct connection between the inability to train attorneys and the constitutional violation. Cato, joined by the Alliance Defense Fund, argues that not only is the parish’s claim based on a misreading of the central precedent, Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, but interpreting civil liability for local governments in such a narrow fashion contravenes long-established rules of responsdeat superior — the doctrine that makes employers liable for employees’ wrongdoings. The drafters of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (the governing civil rights law) showed no indication that they intended local government liability to exclude the doctrine of respondeat superior. For reasons not justified by policy, history, or clearly established law, the Court has created different rules under which a person can recover damages from local governments. Although Monell rightly extended liability to local governments, the idea that this liability is different from historically rooted employer liability should no longer be sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

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