May 15, 2020 10:20AM

SCOTUS Once Again Reschedules (Most Of) Its Qualified Immunity Cases

As Yogi Berra famously said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about qualified immunity.” Or something like that. Two weeks ago, I discussed how the Supreme Court had scheduled thirteen different cert petitions for its May 15th conference. Several of these petitions had been fully briefed and ready for resolution since last October, so it looked like the Court was finally gearing up to confront the fundamental question of whether qualified immunity should be reconsidered entirely.

George Will further discussed that development this week, describing how qualified immunity “has essentially nullified accountability for law enforcement and other government officers” and urging the Supreme Court to “rethink the mistakes it made regarding qualified immunity.” He also noted how the Cato‐​led cross‐​ideological amicus briefs filed in several of the major cases “represent[] an astonishing ideological diversity” and “have helped to bring qualified immunity’s consequences to the attention of the court.”

But it looks like the Court may be preparing to punt on this question yet again. In the last few days, the Court has rescheduled ten of the thirteen cases that were originally set to go to conference today. (“Rescheduled” here is a bit of a misnomer, because the Court hasn’t yet indicated when they’ll actually consider these petitions — it’s more like an indefinite postponement.) The cases that got rescheduled include all three petitions that explicitly ask the Court to reconsider qualified immunity, and in which Cato organized or filed cross‐​ideological amicus briefs — those three cases are Baxter v. Bracey, Zadeh v. Robinson, and Corbitt v. Vickers. Thus, it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer to learn whether the Court intends to take up this question.

Curiously, however, the Court did not reschedule the cert petitions in Kelsay v. Ernst, Jessop v. City of Fresno, or Clarkston v. White, which means those petitions will go to conference today. It’s honestly hard to say why the Court would want to make a decision about the petitions in these three cases, but not any of the others. The petitions in Kelsay and Jessop both raise important questions about clarifying and reining in the worst excesses of the “clearly established law” standard, but then, so do the petitions in some of the other cases that got rescheduled. It’s possible that the Court wants to start with some of the narrower QI questions, short of reconsidering the doctrine entirely, and prefers one or more of these three cases as vehicles. Or it’s possible that, for whatever reason, the Court is confident about denying cert in these three cases, but wants to continue the other cases at a future date. It’s also possible that there’s no real rhyme or reason to this decision, and the Court might simply “relist” one or more of these three cases, which would have the same practical effect going forward as rescheduling them.

In short, we really can’t say with confidence why the Court made the scheduling decisions it did this week, nor is it at all clear what will come out of next Monday’s orders with respect to these three cases. But two things do remain certain: first, the Court is paying very close attention to its qualified immunity docket, and second, qualified immunity is desperately in need of reconsideration.