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Tue Oct 26, 2021, 04:01 PM

The ugly origins of qualified immunity

Tweet text:
Dan King
"Qualified immunity isnít in the Constitution. It isnít in the U.S. Code. It is judge-made law. It is judicial activism, by any definition of the term."

Good deep dive into the ugly origins of qualified immunity by @RadleyBalko.

Opinion | The ugly origins of qualified immunity
A pair of recent Supreme Court decisions will make it more difficult to hold police officials accountable for misdeeds.
8:32 AM ∑ Oct 26, 2021


No paywall

Thereís a good argument to be had over whether police officers should be held to the same legal standards as the rest of us, or, given the high stakes that come with those powers, we should hold them to a higher standard ó complete fidelity to the letter and spirit of the law. But in a free society, there is no real argument that the officials we entrust with these powers should be held to a lower legal standard, that we should let them pick and choose which laws they want to follow. History cries out with warnings about what happens to such societies. We call them police states.

For a brief period last year, there was some hope that the Supreme Court might walk back its 50-year jurisprudence on qualified immunity, the doctrine that makes it nearly impossible to recover damages when police violate the Constitution. After the court ruled last term in favor for the plaintiffs in two cases involving horrific abuse by prison guards, there was some hope that perhaps the court would finally begin to take seriously its role as guardian of the Bill of Rights. The court snuffed out those hopes last week, when it unanimously overruled two federal appeals courts and granted qualified immunity to police officers in two cases.

To fully grasp the courtís abdication of its responsibility here, itís helpful to delve into the history of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity isnít in the Constitution. It isnít in the U.S. Code. It is judge-made law. It is judicial activism, by any definition of the term.

Three years after the Civil War ended, the country ratified the 14th Amendment, which prohibits the states from depriving any person of ďlife, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.Ē But in the former Confederate states, there was little will to enforce those protections. So in 1871, Congress passed Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, which allows those whose rights have been violated by state and local officials to sue for damages in federal court.


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Reply The ugly origins of qualified immunity (Original post)
Nevilledog Oct 26 OP
dalton99a Oct 26 #1

Response to Nevilledog (Original post)

Tue Oct 26, 2021, 04:07 PM

1. It's authoritarian, racist bullshit

The century that followed the enactment of Section 1983 brought widespread violence and terrorism against and the lynching of black Americans. Law enforcement officials, prosecutors, politicians, and judges either feigned obliviousness to the violence or actively participated in it. The Supreme Court encouraged that continued subjugation in 1896 with its infamous 7-to-1 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Importantly, that ruling didnít merely allow private businesses to discriminate, it allowed state governments to compel segregation, and to punish any private entity that wished to treat everyone equally.

This history is important because the case in which the Supreme Court created qualified immunity ó Pierson v. Ray ó is inseparable from the courtís now universally-recognized failing in Plessy. That case began in the summer of 1961 when a group of Episcopal priests decided to participate in the Freedom Rides, the bus tours that took Black and White activists across the South to fight forced segregation. The priests gathered in New Orleans in September to embark on a planned route through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, ending in Detroit.

While in Mississippi, the priests split into smaller groups and planned separate routes to maximize their impact. Waiting on a bus just outside of Jackson, Miss., 15 of the priests, three of whom were Black, entered a segregated cafe. Two police officers ordered them to leave. When they refused, the officers arrested them under a vague Mississippi law permitting police to arrest any group of people who threatens a ďbreach of the peace.Ē The clergymen were convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. On appeal, their arrests were deemed illegal and their convictions were overturned. They subsequently sued under Section 1983.

This was the precise sort of constitutional violation that Section 1983 was passed to address. Local state authorities had refused to recognize the 14th Amendment rights of Black priests to be treated equally. And yet they lost.


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