I’ve previously blogged about Allah v. Milling, a case in which a pretrial detainee was kept in extreme solitary confinement for nearly seven months, for no legitimate reason, and subsequently brought a civil-rights lawsuit against the prison officials responsible. Although every single judge in Mr. Allah’s case agreed that these defendants violated his constitutional rights, a split panel of the Second Circuit said they could not be held liable, all because there wasn’t any prior case addressing the “particular practice” used by this prison. Cato filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Allah’s cert pertition, which explicitly asks the Supreme Court to reconsider qualified immunity—a judge-made doctrine, at odds with the text and history of Section 1983, which regularly allows public officials to escape accountability for this kind of unlawful misconduct.
I also blogged about how, on June 11th, the Supreme Court called for a response to the cert petition, indicating that the Court has at least some interest in the case. The call for a response also triggered 30 days for additional amicus briefs, and over the last month, Cato has been coordinating the drafting and filing of two such briefs—one on behalf of a group of leading qualified immunity scholars (detailing the many recent academic criticisms of the doctrine), and the other on behalf of an incredibly broad range of fifteen public interest and advocacy groups concerned with civil rights and police accountability.
The interest-group brief is especially noteworthy because it is, to my knowledge, the single most ideologically and professionally diverse amicus brief ever filed in the Supreme Court. The signatories include, for example, the ACLU, the Institute for Justice, the Second Amendment Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (the Koch brothers’ primary advocacy group), the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America), the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (composed of current and former law-enforcement professionals), the Alliance Defending Freedom (a religious-liberties advocacy group), and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The brief’s “Statement of Interest” section, after identifying and describing all of the individual signatories, concludes as follows:
The above-named amici reflect the growing cross-ideological consensus that this Court’s qualified immunity doctrine under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 misunderstands that statute and its common-law backdrop, denies justice to victims of egregious constitutional violations, and fails to provide accountability for official wrongdoing. This unworkable doctrine has diminished the public’s trust in government institutions, and it is time for this Court to revisit qualified immunity. Amici respectfully request that the Court grant certiorari and restore Section 1983’s key role in ensuring that no one remains above the law.
The primary theme of this brief is that our nation is in the midst of a major accountability crisis. The widespread availability of cell phones has led to large-scale recording, sharing, and viewing of instances of egregious police misconduct, yet more often than not that misconduct goes unpunished. Unsurprisingly, public trust in law enforcement has fallen to record lows. Qualified immunity exacerbates this crisis, because it regularly denies justice to victims whose constitutional rights are violated, and thus reinforces the sad truth that law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable, either criminally or civilly.
Moreover, qualified immunity not only hurts the direct victims of misconduct, but law enforcement professionals as well. Policing is dangerous, difficult work, and officers—most of whom do try to uphold their constitutional obligations—increasingly report that they cannot effectively carry out their responsibilities without the trust of their communities. Surveys of police officers thus show strong support for increased transparency and accountability, especially by holding wrongdoing officers more accountable. Yet continued adherence to qualified immunity ensures that this worthy goal will never be reached.
The Supreme Court is in recess now, and the defendants’ response brief won’t be due until September 10th, so we’re going to have to wait until early October to find out if the Supreme Court will take the case. But the Court, the legal community, and the public at large should now be aware that criminal defense lawyers, trial lawyers, public-interest lawyers of every ideological stripe, criminal-justice reform groups, free-market & limited-government advocates, and law enforcement professionals themselves all agree on at least one thing—qualified immunity is a blight on our legal system, and the time has come to cast off this pernicious, counter-productive doctrine.