January 17, 2020 5:00PM

As Supreme Court Considers Several Qualified Immunity Cases, A New Ally Joins The Fight

The Wall Street Journal recently published an op‐​ed by Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Robert McNamara, in which he describes IJ’s decision to join the raging battle against qualified immunity, a court‐​confected doctrine that provides rights‐​violating police and other government officials with what Cato has described as an “unlawful shield” against accountability for their misconduct. IJ’s focus on this issue will be a welcome addition to a fight that Cato has been waging for nearly two years with help from an astonishingly cross‐​ideological cast of public interest organizations ranging from the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Second Amendment Foundation.

Cato launched its strategic campaign to challenge the doctrine of qualified immunity—an atextual, ahistorical doctrine invented by the Supreme Court in the 1960s—on March 1, 2018. Cato’s kick‐​off panel featured Judge Lynn Adelman of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, who has sharply criticized the doctrine; Professor Will Baude, whose enormously influential law review article has formed the backbone of the legal challenge to qualified immunity; and Andy Pincus and Victor Glasberg, two practitioners with ample experience confronting the harsh realities of the doctrine. Shortly after that conference, George Will noted on Meet the Press that there would be a “national discussion” about qualified immunity, “led by the Cato Institute.”

The centerpiece of Cato’s strategic campaign to take down qualified immunity has been a series of targeted amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to reverse its precedents and eliminate the doctrine outright. Since launching the campaign in March 2018, Cato has filed dozens of additional amicus briefs in our own name, but we have also organized a massive cross‐​ideological alliance of public interest groups opposed to qualified immunity—what Judge Don Willett recently called “perhaps the most diverse amici ever assembled.” This “cross‐​ideological brief” was first filed in July 2018, in support of the cert petition in Allah v. Milling, a case involving the illegal and unconstitutional solitary confinement of a pretrial detainee in Connecticut for nearly seven months. So unsettled was the state by the onslaught of amicus support that it settled the case by offering the plaintiff more to dismiss his cert petition than he had been awarded at trial.

A diverse array of lower court judges has also been increasingly critical of qualified immunity, with many explicitly calling for the Supreme Court to reconsider the doctrine. To underscore the incredible ideological breadth of the opposition to qualified immunity, it is worth noting that the judicial critics of the doctrine now include nominees of every single President since Carter, as well as one of the two remaining LBJ appointees on the bench. To give just a few notable examples:

  • Judge Don Willett, a Trump appointee to the Fifth Circuit, has explained how “[t]o some observers, qualified immunity smacks of unqualified impunity, letting public officials duck consequences for bad behavior—no matter how palpably unreasonable—as long as they were the first to behave badly,” and sharply notes that “this entrenched, judge‐​created doctrine excuses constitutional violations by limiting the statute Congress passed to redress constitutional violations.”
  • Judge James Browning, a George W. Bush appointee to the District of New Mexico, has now issued several opinions that include a blistering criticism of the Supreme Court’s “clearly established law” standard, and citing Cato’s amicus briefs for the argument that “qualified immunity has increasingly diverged from the statutory and historical framework on which it is supposed to be based.”
  • Judge Dale Drozd, an Obama appointee to the Eastern District of California, cited Cato’s March 2018 forum in his discussion of the campaign to challenge qualified immunity, and announced that “this judge joins with those who have endorsed a complete re‐​examination of the doctrine which, as it is currently applied, mandates illogical, unjust, and puzzling results in many cases.”

Now, almost two years into Cato’s campaign, the Supreme Court finally appears to be preparing to confront the question of whether qualified immunity should be reconsidered. There are currently six major qualified immunity cert petitions pending before the Court, and the manner in which the Supreme Court has repeatedly rescheduled consideration of these cases strongly suggests that the Justices may be preparing to consider them together—which in turn suggests that they’re looking closely at the fundamental question of whether qualified immunity should be reconsidered. We first discussed this possibility back in October of last year, and we now have even more evidence suggesting the Court may be preparing to take up this issue. Here are the key details about each of the six cases:

  • Brennan v. Dawson. In this case, the Sixth Circuit granted immunity to a police officer who, in an attempt to administer an alcohol breath test to a man on misdemeanor probation, parked his car in front of the man’s home at 8:00pm; turned the lights and sirens on for over an hour; circled the man’s house five to ten times, peering into and knocking on windows; and wrapped the home’s security camera in police tape. The court held that this warrantless invasion of the curtilage violated the Fourth Amendment, but nevertheless granted immunity due to a lack of “clearly established law.” The cert petition in this case was filed on January 11, 2019, and asks the Court to “reign in the qualified immunity standard to … reflect the common‐​law roots of qualified immunity.”
  • Zadeh v. Robinson and Corbitt v. Vickers. We’ve discussed these cases in more detail previously, but Zadeh is the case where the Fifth Circuit granted immunity to state investigators that entered a doctor’s office and, without notice and without a warrant, demanded to rifle through the medical records of 16 patients. And Corbitt is the case where the Eleventh Circuit granted immunity to a deputy sheriff who shot a ten‐​year‐​old child lying on the ground, while repeatedly attempting to shoot a pet dog that wasn’t posing any threat. The plaintiffs in both cases are now represented by Paul Hughes, who filed cert petitions on November 22, 2019, each of which asks “[w]hether the Court should recalibrate or reverse the doctrine of qualified immunity.” Cato submitted briefs in both cases, this time taking the lead on the cross‐​ideological brief, whose signatories also included the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Association for Justice, the ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, the Due Process Institute, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the MacArthur Justice Center, the NAACP, Public Justice, R Street, and the Second Amendment Foundation.
  • Kelsay v. Ernst. This is the case where 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.” The cert petition in this case was filed on November 26, 2019, and while it doesn’t ask the Court to reconsider qualified immunity outright, it does ask the Court to “take steps within the confines of current law to rein in the most extreme departures from the original meaning of Section 1983.” Cato filed a brief in support of this petition as well.
  • West v. Winfield. As related in the IJ op‐​ed mentioned above, police officers told Shaniz West that they were looking for her ex‐​boyfriend and thought he might be inside her house, so she gave them permission to go in and look. But instead of entering, they instead called a SWAT team, who bombarded it from the outside with tear‐​gas grenades, effectively destroying her home and all her possessions (the ex‐​boyfriend wasn’t even inside). The Ninth Circuit granted immunity to the officers, on the grounds that no prior case specifically established that this sort of bombardment exceeded the scope of consent that Ms. West gave to allow officers to enter her home. Yesterday, the IJ filed a cert petition on behalf of Ms. West asking the Court to clarify and limit the scope of qualified immunity. As noted, this case marks the launch of IJ’s “Project on Immunity and Accountability,” which is focused on challenging doctrines like qualified immunity that erroneously permit public officials to operate above the law. IJ has previously joined various iterations of the Cato‐​conceived cross‐​ideological brief described above, but we’re looking forward to filing our own amicus brief in support of IJ’s cert petition in West.

The Court has yet to make a final decision about any of these cert petitions, but there’s good reason to think the Justices are preparing to consider at least some of them jointly. First, in every single one of these cases (except West, as it was just filed yesterday), the Court has “called for a response” to the cert petition. Although a CFR alone is no guarantee of a cert grant, it’s an encouraging sign that at least some of the Justices are looking closely at the case, and want to hear more from the respondents about the issue.

Second, the Court’s repeated rescheduling decisions strongly suggest that they’re planning to consider them together, meaning they’re likely to address the fundamental, underlying question of whether qualified immunity itself should be reconsidered. Specifically, Baxter and Brennan were both fully briefed and originally set to be considered in October 2019. But since then, the Baxter petition has been rescheduled five times, and Brennan has been rescheduled three times, most recently on January 8th in both cases. January 8th also happens to be the same day in which the Court called for a response in both Zadeh and Corbitt (with the Kelsay CFR following five days later, on January 13th). It’s hard to imagine why else the Court would postpone these fully briefed petitions for over three months, unless they were holding them to consider along with these more recent petitions raising the same ultimate question.

Of course, this is all still speculative to some degree, and even if the Court does grant cert in one or more of these cases, there’s a wide range of potential outcomes. But the confluence of so many powerful petitions pending at the same time, combined with the Court’s obvious focus on this issue, makes undeniable what Cato has been saying for years—one way or another, the Supreme Court is going to have to confront the glaring legal inadequacies of qualified immunity, together with the massive injustices the doctrine has perpetrated on countless individuals whose rights have been violated with impunity by unaccountable police and other government officials.