Supreme Court Again Declines To Review Scope Of Qualified Immunity Doctrine

This week, the Supreme Court again declined to review eight separate qualified immunity cases for which petitions for certiorari were pending. For decades, the doctrine of qualified immunity has functioned to shield police officers from lawsuits alleging brutality and other civil rights violations.

What is Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity only permits a civil suit to be brought against a police officer when the type of conduct the officer engaged in has already been “clearly established” as a violation of a statutory or constitutional right. In practice, this requirement has demanded that the conduct at issue be nearly identical to conduct that has been deemed to be a violation in the past.

Justice Thomas’s Statement

In an unsigned order issued on Monday, in which the Court refused to reconsider the breadth of the doctrine in a handful of cases, Justice Thomas issued a dissent from the denial of certiorari in one case involving a suspect who was bitten by a police dog.

Justice Thomas explained that he “continue[s] to have strong doubts about [the] qualified immunity doctrine” because, among other reasons, the “qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text” and there “may be no justification for a one-size-fits-all, subjective immunity based on good faith,” which is what the Court’s recent decisions have supported.

Why it is Important to Continue to Push to Get Reforms Passed

Concerningly, recent studies (such as one by Reuters, available here, have found that numerous civil cases involving horrific acts – some arguably as bad as what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis in May – have been dismissed in court due to the fact that there was no “clearly established” precedent to support that those aggressive acts violated constitutional or statutory rights.

In light of the Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider the prevailing interpretation of the qualified immunity doctrine – and therefore its failure to reign in the vast discretion afforded to officers – it has become critical for the legislatures to continue to push to get reforms passed in order to protect the lives of minorities who are disproportionately targeted with brutal force during police interactions. You can find Justice Thomas’ full dissent to the denial of certiorari in the qualified immunity case, Baxter v. Bracey, here.


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