The Supreme Court created qualified immunity in 1982. With that novel invention, the court granted all government officials immunity for violating constitutional and civil rights unless the victims of those violations can show that the rights were “clearly established.”
A virtually unlimited protection
Although innocuous sounding, the clearly established test is a legal obstacle nearly impossible to overcome. It requires a victim to identify an earlier decision by the Supreme Court, or a federal appeals court in the same jurisdiction holding that precisely the same conduct under the same circumstances is illegal or unconstitutional. If none exists, the official is immune. Whether the official’s actions are unconstitutional, intentional or malicious is irrelevant to the test.
In determining the relationship between government and governed, one of the most important decisions a society can make is how accountable those who wield official power must be to those against whom that power is wielded. Congress made a clear choice in that regard when it passed the Enforcement Act of 1871, which we now call “Section 1983” after its location in the U.S. Code. Simply put, Section 1983 creates a standard of strict liability by providing that state actors “shall be liable to the party injured” for “the deprivation of any rights.” Thus, if a police officer walks up to your house and peeks inside one of your windows without a warrant—a clear violation of your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches—he is liable to you for the violation of that right.
But many conservatives do an odd thing: In their preference for a more forgiving policy that gives police and other government officials substantial leeway in the exercise of discretion, they abandon their stated commitment to textualism and embrace an “interpretation” of Section 1983 that is utterly divorced from its text. The vehicle for this conservative brand of what we might call “living statutory interpretivism” is the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine, which judicially amends Section 1983 to provide that the standard for liability will no longer be the deprivation of “any rights”—as Congress expressly provided—but rather the deprivation of any “clearly established” rights.
As documented in considerable detail on Cato’s Unlawful Shield website, those two words—“clearly established”—do an extraordinary amount of work in keeping meritorious cases out of court and ensuring that plaintiffs whose rights have been violated by police or other state actors will receive no recovery unless they can find a pre-existing case in the jurisdiction with nearly identical facts. But that is plainly not the statute that Congress wrote, nor is it the standard of accountability that Congress chose. Moreover, as Professor Will Baude demonstrates in his masterful article, “Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?,” there is no credible textual or historical basis for the qualified immunity doctrine; it is a blatant act of pro-government judicial policymaking—activism, if you will—and nothing more.