May 18, 2020 5:42PM

Qualified Immunity Is Back For This Week’s SCOTUS Conference

For the last few weeks, I’ve been detailing the ongoing developments in the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity docket. About three weeks ago, I described how the Court had scheduled thirteen different qualified immunity petitions for its May 15th conference, including several petitions calling for qualified immunity to be reconsidered entirely. But then last week, I noted that the Court had unexpectedly “rescheduled” ten out of those thirteen cases, leaving only three for consideration on May 15th. Well, today the Court issued orders from last week’s conference, and there are two major developments.

First, the bad news: The Court denied cert in the three cases that it considered last week — Kelsay v. Ernst, Jessop v. City of Fresno, and Clarkston v. White — without comment from any of the Justices. This is disappointing, because the Kelsay and Jessop cases in particular involved especially egregious applications of qualified immunity that were crying out for correction, if not summary reversal. In Kelsay, the Eighth Circuit, in an 8–4 en banc decision, granted immunity to a police officer who grabbed a small woman in a bear hug and slammed her to ground, breaking her collarbone and knocking her unconscious, all because she walked away from him after he told her to “get back here.” And in Jessop, the Ninth Circuit granted immunity to police officers who were alleged to have stolen $225,000 in cash and rare coins while executing a search warrant, just for their personal enrichment. By denying cert in these cases, the Supreme Court ensured that these victims would be left without redress for their injuries, and that the police who committed such flagrant misconduct will avoid any liability for their misdeeds. 

Second, the good news: The Court also rescheduled the remaining ten qualified immunity petitions for consideration at its conference this Thursday, May 21st. This means that, barring additional rescheduling, we should get orders on these petitions on Tuesday, May 26th (the day after Memorial Day). Most notably, the cases set for consideration this week include Baxter v. Bracey, Zadeh v. Robinson, and Corbitt v. Vickers, which are the three petitions explicitly calling for qualified immunity to be reconsidered entirely. Thus, the fact that the Justices denied the three petitions today doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t still interested in revisiting qualified immunity. If anything, the fact that the Court rescheduled the biggest three cases may indicate that the Justices are more interested in addressing this larger question, rather than taking a narrower approach.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say with confidence exactly why the Court decided to approach all of these petitions in the way that it did. I still don’t have a great explanation for why the Court chose to carve out KelsayJessop, and Clarkston for earlier resolution than the other cases. And given the number of unexpected reschedulings we’ve already seen, it’s entirely possible the Court decides to push back some or all of these cases yet again. But for now, it looks like this Thursday is the day the Justices will finally confront the question of whether qualified immunity itself should be reconsidered — and next Tuesday is the day we’ll learn what they decided.