Washington, D.C. — On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to reconsider legal immunity from lawsuits given to police and other public officials accused of misconduct.
The SCOTUS blog tweeted the following: #SCOTUS also turns down group of cases involving doctrine of qualified immunity, which shield officials from liability for constitutional violations that do not violate clearly established law”
#SCOTUS also turns down group of cases involving doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields officials from liability for constitutional violations that do not violate clearly established law
— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) June 15, 2020
The justices’ decision not to hear a case on qualified immunity in their next term, which will begin in October, following the death last month of George Floyd. Floyd’s killing has led to days of riots and peaceful protests in Minneapolis and across the U.S. and a renewed national debate about racism and police brutality.
The Court has always set a high threshold for pursuing lawsuits over official misconduct. Officers’ behavior must violate “clearly established” laws or constitutional rights, and courts have found it seldom does, because almost every specific allegation is different.
Lower court judges and scholars on both the Left and the Right have questioned that legal doctrine for creating a nearly impossible standard for victims to meet and a nearly blanket immunity for those accused of misconduct.
The doctrine was established by the Supreme Court in 1982 and has been expanded over time. Increasingly, the top court has required victims to cite a case with precisely the same detailed facts as their own in order to prove that the action against them was a clearly established violation of the law.
Justices Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s most conservative justices, and Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal, have both criticized qualified immunity on separate grounds.
CNBC has reported that, “Thomas has argued that qualified immunity is essentially a creation of the justices — substituting ‘our own policy preferences’ for that of Congress. Sotomayor has written that qualified immunity ‘tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.'”
In a dissent from the court’s decision not to hear one of the qualified immunity cases it was considering, Thomas reiterated his opposition to the doctrine.
Thomas wrote, “There likely is no basis for the objective inquiry into clearly established law that our modern cases prescribe. Leading treatises from the second half of the 19th century and case law until the 1980s contain no support for this ‘clearly established law’ test.”
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