WASHINGTON ― On the same morning that the Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion upholding the rights of gay and transgender Americans, the nation’s highest court brushed aside a number of cases that would have allowed it to readdress law enforcement officers’ broad immunity from lawsuits over police brutality.
Justices on the Supreme Court turned away more than a dozen lawsuits related to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine which lets police officers escape accountability for using tactics that haven’t been expressly banned in prior court decisions. Even when police officers clearly violate constitutional rights, they are often not held liable because the right that they violate wasn’t clearly established by the courts at the time.
The decision came three weeks after the police killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests. The mass support of the Black Lives Matter movement has swiftly ushered in public opinion shifts on law enforcement issues, even though it’s unclear whether law enforcement will once again stave off broader changes to America’s policing system.
The Supreme Court, per standard practice, didn’t explain why it brushed off the cases. But Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he had previously expressed his doubt about “our qualified immunity jurisprudence.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor has previously criticized the court for failing to get involved in police violence cases and said in 2015 that the court has been “sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing.”
David Cole, national legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the Supreme Court’s decision “deeply disappointing,” especially in a “time of national reckoning over police violence.”
“Justice Thomas’s dissent from the denial of review in the ACLU’s challenge to qualified immunity underscores how far off course the law has strayed,” Cole said. “We have seen the deadly consequences play out on the streets, and Black Americans have largely paid the price. Recent events demonstrate the urgent need for Congress to stand up for the rule of law and abolish qualified immunity — for anyone acting under color of law — to close the loophole allowing government officials to escape accountability for violating constitutional rights.”
Cato Policy Analyst Jay Schweikert called the Supreme Court’s decision “a shocking dereliction of duty” that “could not come at a worse time.”
“There was simply no excuse for the Court to decline this golden opportunity to begin addressing its mistakes in creating and propagating the doctrine of qualified immunity,” Schweikert said. “The petitions before the Court plainly demonstrated both the moral injustices and practical absurdities of the ‘clearly established law’ standard.”
Schweikert said the “senseless violence committed by Derek Chauvin—and the stunning indifference of the officers standing by as George Floyd begged for his life—is the product of our culture of near-zero accountability for law enforcement.”
He said qualified immunity “will go down in history as one of the Supreme Court’s most egregious, costly, and embarrassing mistakes.”
A HuffPost/YouGov survey found that curtailing qualified immunity for police officers is a broadly popular policy proposal. But Republicans want to leave qualified immunity out of police reform proposals, with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) calling qualified immunity a “poison pill” that would kill broader police reform efforts in Congress.