Contributions

Rethinking Qualified Immunity: Making America Accountable Again

By Vic­to­ria del Rio-Guarn­er1

When a gov­ern­ment offi­cial vio­lates a civilian’s fun­da­men­tal rights, § 1983 of Title 42 of the Unit­ed States Code (“§ 1983”) gives that civil­ian a cause of action in the form of a civ­il dam­ages suit against such offi­cial in fed­er­al court.2 First enact­ed in the after­math of the Civ­il War as part of the Klu Klux Klan Act of 1871, Con­gress designed this cause of action as a pro­phy­lac­tic safe­guard for fun­da­men­tal rights4—con­sis­tent with sev­er­al core Amer­i­can val­ues such as deter­rence and account­abil­i­ty.5 Since its enact­ment, § 1983 has not men­tioned any affir­ma­tive defens­es. Nev­er­the­less, the Supreme Court has incor­po­rat­ed some tra­di­tion­al defens­es into it. Specif­i­cal­ly, the Court decid­ed that the immu­ni­ties avail­able to gov­ern­ment actors as a defense to com­mon law tort lia­bil­i­ty would be read into this new statu­to­ry scheme. The Court jus­ti­fied this deci­sion on the basis that these immu­ni­ties were “so firm­ly root­ed in the com­mon law and [] sup­port­ed by such strong pol­i­cy rea­sons that ‘Con­gress would have specif­i­cal­ly pro­vid­ed had it wished to abol­ish the doc­trine.’”7

Ini­tial­ly, the Court direct­ed low­er courts to grant immu­ni­ty defens­es assert­ed by offi­cials in response to § 1983 claims only to the extent that immu­ni­ties exist­ed for sim­i­lar offi­cials accused of com­mit­ting anal­o­gous com­mon law torts in 1871.8 Under this his­tor­i­cal anal­o­gy approach, immu­ni­ties were seen as falling into one of two gen­er­al categories—absolute immu­ni­ty9 and qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty10—and the Court was able to pre­serve the appear­ance of insti­tu­tion­al integri­ty by cre­at­ing incre­men­tal carve­outs to spe­cif­ic § 1983 actions and then chalk­ing them up to his­to­ry rather than to the Jus­tices’ per­son­al pol­i­cy pref­er­ences.11  Lit­tle by lit­tle, how­ev­er, as the Court became increas­ing­ly con­cerned with impos­ing the bur­dens of lit­i­ga­tion on pub­lic offi­cials, it began to jus­ti­fy all expan­sions of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty on the basis that peace offi­cers were enti­tled to a good faith defense when § 1983 was adopt­ed, even if the offi­cial in ques­tion was not a peace offi­cer.12 Even­tu­al­ly, the Court alto­geth­er unteth­ered qual­i­fied immu­ni­ties from their his­tor­i­cal roots.13 Con­se­quent­ly, the mod­ern doc­trine of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty bears lit­tle resem­blance to its orig­i­nal form in the con­text of § 1983 claims and rep­re­sents a series of “free­wheel­ing” pol­i­cy choic­es by the Court, in con­tra­ven­tion of sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers.14

This Con­tri­bu­tion argues that in two sem­i­nal deci­sions, Har­low v. Fitzger­ald and Pear­son v. Calla­han, the Supreme Court dis­re­gard­ed the pol­i­cy choice Con­gress made by enact­ing § 1983 and rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed both the sub­stance15 and the pro­ce­dure16  of the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty frame­work, ren­der­ing it effec­tive­ly unqual­i­fied.17 This Con­tri­bu­tion also argues that, at the very least, the Court should recal­i­brate and clar­i­fy the doc­trine to bet­ter ful­fill its under­ly­ing pur­pose with­out dis­abling § 1983 claims.

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When qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty was jus­ti­fied by the com­mon law good faith defense,18 it was grant­ed upon the offi­cial show­ing “the exis­tence of rea­son­able grounds for the belief formed at the time [of the chal­lenged action] and in light of all the cir­cum­stances, cou­pled with good-faith belief.”19  Thus, gov­ern­ment offi­cials were only afford­ed its pro­tec­tion if both of the fol­low­ing ele­ments were estab­lished: (1) it was objec­tive­ly rea­son­able for the pub­lic offi­cial to believe that his or her chal­lenged con­duct was con­sti­tu­tion­al; and (2) the offi­cial had a sub­jec­tive good faith belief that his or her con­duct was law­ful.20 Before con­duct­ing this analy­sis, how­ev­er, low­er courts were required to fol­low a par­tic­u­lar pro­ce­dure: first, deter­mine whether the alleged con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tion occurred, and only pro­ceed if the answer was yes.21 But, in Har­low v. Fitzger­ald and Pear­son v. Calla­han,22 the Court sub­sti­tut­ed its pol­i­cy judg­ments for those of Con­gress, and fun­da­men­tal­ly changed both the sub­stance and the pro­ce­dure of the doc­trine.

In Har­low v. Fitzger­ald, the Court changed the sub­stance of the doc­trine by elim­i­nat­ing the sub­jec­tive com­po­nent of the analy­sis, such that gov­ern­ment offi­cials accused of a con­sti­tu­tion­al tort are enti­tled to qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty, so long as the chal­lenged con­duct was objec­tive­ly rea­son­able in light of then-exist­ing law.23 The Court char­ac­ter­ized its deci­sion as a choice “between the evils inevitable in any avail­able alter­na­tive.”24 And ulti­mate­ly, the Court choose to jeop­ar­dize civ­il lib­er­ties by ren­der­ing § 1983 tooth­less, rather than risk “the dan­ger that fear of being sued will damp­en the ardor of [pub­lic offi­cials] … in the unflinch­ing dis­charge of their duties.”25 Objec­tive rea­son­able­ness turns on whether the plain­tiff meets his or her bur­den in show­ing that the con­trol­ling law at the time in ques­tion was “clear­ly estab­lished.”26 The Court jus­ti­fied its deci­sion to dis­card the sub­jec­tive part of the analy­sis on the basis that try­ing to dis­cern an impli­cat­ed official’s state of mind tend­ed to fore­close sum­ma­ry judg­ment in favor of the pub­lic offi­cial, there­by under­min­ing an impor­tant pol­i­cy at the heart of immu­ni­ty: shield­ing offi­cials not only from lia­bil­i­ty, but also from suit.27

In Pear­son v. Calla­han, the Court made a piv­otal deci­sion to upend the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty doctrine’s pro­ce­dure.28 Like in Har­low, the Court framed its deci­sion as a choice between evils. Choos­ing between the risk of “con­sti­tu­tion­al stag­na­tion” and the risk of “sub­stan­tial expen­di­ture of scarce judi­cial resources … [in] cas­es in which it is plain that a con­sti­tu­tion­al right is not clear­ly estab­lished[,]”29 the Court decid­ed that the for­mer was the less­er threat.30 The Court grant­ed low­er courts per­mis­sion to skip the con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tion and dis­miss where the law is not clear­ly estab­lished.31 This deci­sion is par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic because the Court has failed to pro­vide mean­ing­ful, let alone coher­ent guid­ance, as to what it meant in Har­low when it set forth the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard.32

In addi­tion to the crit­i­cal changes to the sub­stance and pro­ce­dure of the doc­trine, it is not entire­ly clear what meet­ing Har­low’s clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard entails.33  The Har­low inquiry is about deter­min­ing whether prece­dent is suf­fi­cient­ly anal­o­gous to ren­der the law clear­ly estab­lished.34 The Court has sug­gest­ed that this analy­sis should pro­ceed at a very low lev­el of generality—in oth­er words, that there must be a high degree of fac­tu­al cor­re­spon­dence between the case before a court and the then-exist­ing prece­dent.35 For instance, the Court has stat­ed that “clear­ly estab­lished law should not be defined at a high lev­el of gen­er­al­i­ty,”36 and that the applic­a­ble case law must put the ille­gal­i­ty of the con­duct at issue “beyond debate.”37 Yet, in some cas­es, the Court appears to relax this require­ment, by, for exam­ple, fram­ing it as a “fair notice” stan­dard.38

Accord­ing to the Court, nei­ther for­mu­la­tion requires a case direct­ly on point.39 Under the stricter artic­u­la­tion of the stan­dard, how­ev­er, this claim is disin­gen­u­ous and the Court’s analy­sis in Ander­son v. Creighton illus­trates why.40 Ander­son con­cerned a forcible and war­rant­less search of a family’s home in the mid­dle of the night, which police offi­cers jus­ti­fied as law­ful because of exi­gent cir­cum­stance. There the Court explained that the ques­tion under the Fourth Amend­ment was not whether “the right to be free from war­rant­less search­es of one’s home with­out prob­a­ble cause and exi­gent cir­cum­stances was clear­ly estab­lished.”41 Rather, the ques­tion was “whether a rea­son­able offi­cer could have believed Anderson’s war­rant­less search to be law­ful, in light of clear­ly estab­lished law and the infor­ma­tion the search­ing offi­cers pos­sessed.”42 Thus, to meet the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard, the plain­tiffs effec­tive­ly need­ed a fac­tu­al­ly par­al­lel case in which police offi­cers relied on the same exi­gent cir­cum­stances.

Adding to the con­fu­sion is the cir­cuit split that has devel­oped in light of the fact that Har­low’s prog­e­ny says lit­tle on delin­eat­ing the body of rel­e­vant deci­sion­al law for the clear­ly estab­lished stan­dard.43 On this the Court has said that both “cas­es of con­trol­ling author­i­ty in their juris­dic­tion at the time of the inci­dent” and “a con­sen­sus of cas­es of per­sua­sive author­i­ty such that a rea­son­able offi­cer could not have believed that his actions were law­ful” may ren­der the law clear­ly estab­lished.44 The ambi­gu­i­ties of this state­ment have come to the fore­front as the cir­cuits have inter­pret­ed its man­date. For instance, the thresh­old for con­trol­ling prece­dent to be suf­fi­cient remains unclear.45 In fact, whether cir­cuit law can be enough on its own is espe­cial­ly uncer­tain since the Court has sug­gest­ed that clear­ly estab­lished in cir­cuit law is insuf­fi­cient when the cir­cuits are divid­ed on the issue.46 It is also unclear when and to what extent per­sua­sive author­i­ties should be con­sid­ered.47 While judges know they may look to oth­er cir­cuit deci­sions, state court case law, state laws and reg­u­la­tions, and oth­er mate­ri­als pro­vid­ing legal guid­ance,48 they have lit­tle guid­ance on how to make prop­er use of such mate­ri­als.

The Court’s ambi­gu­i­ty with respect to the body of deci­sion­al law that con­trols in employ­ing the clear­ly estab­lished stan­dard has result­ed in a cir­cuit split, cut­ting against prin­ci­ples of uni­for­mi­ty and threat­en­ing reliance inter­ests.49  The First, Fifth, Sev­enth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Cir­cuits, for exam­ple, cast a broad net by “look[ing] to what­ev­er deci­sion­al law is avail­able,” if there is no bind­ing prece­dent that ren­ders the right clear­ly estab­lished.50 By con­trast, the Sixth and Dis­trict of Colum­bia Cir­cuits take a nar­row­er approach by eval­u­at­ing a sub­set of rel­e­vant law pur­suant to the fol­low­ing hier­ar­chy: Supreme Court prece­dent, case law from their cir­cuit, in cir­cuit dis­trict court deci­sions, and oth­er cir­cuits deci­sions.51 In the Fourth and Eleventh Cir­cuits, courts cast the nar­row­est net by look­ing only to bind­ing prece­dent and law from the high­est state court where the events at issue tran­spired.52

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These doc­tri­nal incon­sis­ten­cies make qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty a night­mare to admin­is­ter.53 This like­ly leads low­er courts to err on the side of cau­tion and grant immu­ni­ty.54 Indeed, despite some more for­giv­ing for­mu­la­tions of the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard, the Court has not ful­ly embraced these more lenient for­mu­la­tions.55 Low­er courts have under­stood this to mean that qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty is only prop­er when the chal­lenged con­duct is so egre­gious that the absence of case law on the sub­ject is irrel­e­vant.56 The preva­lence of the more strin­gent for­mu­la­tion of clear­ly estab­lished law as requir­ing prece­dent that places the issue of the legal­i­ty of the con­duct “beyond debate”57 cre­ates an incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult hur­dle for plain­tiffs to clear. This is espe­cial­ly true in the ear­ly stages of lit­i­ga­tion where there has been lit­tle to no dis­cov­ery and com­pet­ing accounts of crit­i­cal facts may not impede sum­ma­ry judg­ment if courts sim­ply decide that the law is not clear­ly estab­lished.58 In short, by defin­ing alleged con­sti­tu­tion­al harms at such a low lev­el of gen­er­al­i­ty, the Court is essen­tial­ly direct­ing low­er courts to find all exist­ing prece­dent dis­tin­guish­able or inap­plic­a­ble, unless doing so is impos­si­ble.59 The result is an over-inclu­sive stan­dard that shields more than just gov­ern­ment offi­cials who neg­li­gent­ly com­mit con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions.60

In addi­tion, after Pear­son, empir­i­cal evi­dence sug­gests that low­er courts abuse the dis­cre­tion Pear­son afford­ed them by skip­ping straight to the clear­ly estab­lished law ques­tion based on con­sid­er­a­tions not list­ed by the Court,61 which has led to con­sti­tu­tion­al stag­na­tion.62 Con­se­quent­ly, it has become increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for plain­tiffs to prove that the law was clear­ly estab­lished.63 The fact that the stan­dards gov­ern­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al torts tend to clash with the cur­rent immu­ni­ty analy­sis may have some­thing to do with this.64 Specif­i­cal­ly, since many con­sti­tu­tion­al rights are gov­erned by stan­dards that call for bal­anc­ing var­i­ous pol­i­cy inter­ests and con­text-spe­cif­ic fac­tors, the rea­son­able­ness stan­dard of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty cre­ates “two lay­ers of insu­la­tion from lia­bil­i­ty .…”65 This results in a brick, rather than a thumb, on the scale in favor of gov­ern­ment actors accused of seri­ous wrong­do­ing.66

The Court’s diver­gent jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the doc­trine under­mine its claimed ratio­nale and engen­der fur­ther com­pli­ca­tions. Some argu­ments focus on the com­mon law jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the doc­trine, while oth­ers focus on the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions the Court set forth in Har­low. Schol­ars and cur­rent Jus­tices have argued that the doc­trine must be recon­sid­ered since it can no longer be jus­ti­fied on the basis of its his­tor­i­cal roots and is mere judi­cial leg­is­la­tion.67 Put dif­fer­ent­ly, because qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty is a judi­cial­ly-cre­at­ed defense, if it is no longer teth­ered to its com­mon law roots, or con­strained by Con­gress’ intent in enact­ing § 1983, then it is just a device for judges to make pol­i­cy based on per­son­al pref­er­ences, con­trary to the Con­sti­tu­tion.68 With respect to the lat­ter, some com­men­ta­tors posit that the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in Har­low is unsound and actu­al­ly under­mines the integri­ty of the process.69 There the Court jus­ti­fied its refor­mu­la­tion of the doc­trine stat­ing that “[t]he sub­jec­tive ele­ment of the good-faith defense fre­quent­ly has proved incom­pat­i­ble with [the Court’s] admo­ni­tion … that insub­stan­tial claims should not pro­ceed to tri­al,” espe­cial­ly in light of the “sub­stan­tial costs [that] attend the lit­i­ga­tion of the sub­jec­tive good faith of gov­ern­ment offi­cials.”70 Aside from the prob­lem­at­ic assump­tion that most § 1983 actions are insub­stan­tial and unwor­thy of sur­viv­ing sum­ma­ry judg­ment and pro­ceed­ing to tri­al, com­men­ta­tors argue that this deci­sion makes judges into fact find­ers in the process of decid­ing whether ear­ly dis­po­si­tion is prop­er.71 And ulti­mate­ly, they assert, if the doc­trine forces judges to usurp the role of the jury and pre­sume all claims brought by plain­tiffs are friv­o­lous, then it under­mines pub­lic per­cep­tion of the judi­cia­ry and the integri­ty of the sys­tem.72

Admit­ted­ly, there are two con­sis­tent strands dis­cern­able in the Court’s mod­ern qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty case law. These two aspects of the doc­trine, how­ev­er, pro­mote con­fu­sion by both fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing appli­ca­tion and adding to its the­o­ret­i­cal inco­her­ence. First, the Court explic­it­ly and repeat­ed­ly stat­ed that the doc­trine applies “‘across the board’ and with­out regard to ‘the pre­cise nature of the var­i­ous offi­cials’ duties or the pre­cise char­ac­ter of the par­tic­u­lar rights alleged to have been vio­lat­ed.’”73 Though clear, this aspect of the doc­trine height­ens the con­cern that the doc­trine is sub­stan­tive­ly at odds with high­ly con­tex­tu­al tests that gov­ern con­sti­tu­tion­al torts.74 Sec­ond, though not explic­it­ly stat­ed by the Court, by giv­ing cas­es where immu­ni­ty was denied a promi­nent posi­tion on its dock­et and almost always revers­ing these denials, the Court has implied that courts should pre­sump­tive­ly grant qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty.75 This, cou­pled with Pear­son, makes con­sti­tu­tion­al stag­na­tion a very real threat.76 Thus, the Court’s far-from-sub­tle pref­er­ence for grant­i­ng immu­ni­ty exac­er­bates the issues cre­at­ed by its mod­ern qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty doc­trine.77

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In order to cor­rect this mas­sive pow­er grab, the Court should both relax the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard and pro­vide mean­ing­ful guid­ance that makes it eas­i­er to apply. This means aban­don­ing the “beyond debate” lan­guage used to define the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard and embrac­ing the neglect­ed “fair notice” artic­u­la­tion of the stan­dard. This is because under the “fair notice” stan­dard a case direct­ly on point is not nec­es­sary since the case law tak­en in aggre­gate can be said to have put the offi­cials on notice that their con­duct was unlaw­ful.78 It also means artic­u­lat­ing a clear and con­sis­tent set of fac­tors for courts to use as guide­posts in sur­vey­ing the body of exist­ing law from which the clear­ly estab­lished stan­dard will be eval­u­at­ed. In oth­er words, by clar­i­fy­ing Har­low, the Court can tem­per the impact of Pearson’s pro­ce­dur­al escape hatch and strike the bal­ance it orig­i­nal­ly sought to achieve by read­ing immu­ni­ties into the statute.

In craft­ing guid­ing fac­tors for apply­ing qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty, two areas of the Court’s jurispru­dence are instruc­tive: cas­es brought under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Nar­cotics Agents,79 and cas­es con­cern­ing admin­is­tra­tive law.80 The for­mer pro­vides us with an exam­ple of guid­ance designed to ascer­tain the degree of sim­i­lar­i­ty between a case at bar and exist­ing prece­dent, sim­i­lar to inquiry under the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard.81 The lat­ter is help­ful because it is an area of law great­ly con­cerned with prob­lems of dis­cre­tion, judi­cial def­er­ence, and sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, notions that are also at play in the con­text of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty.82

When review­ing a claim brought under Bivens, courts must decide whether it is prop­er to per­mit the use of this “implied cause of action” and whether to dis­miss the case if it aris­es in a new con­text.83 Con­se­quent­ly, courts begin by ask­ing whether the case at bar “is dif­fer­ent in a mean­ing­ful way from pre­vi­ous Bivens cas­es decid­ed by th[e] [Supreme] Court[.]”84 To guide courts in mak­ing this deter­mi­na­tion, the fol­low­ing fac­tors have evolved:

[1] the rank of the offi­cers involved; [2] the con­sti­tu­tion­al right at issue; [3] the gen­er­al­i­ty or speci­fici­ty of the indi­vid­ual action; [4] the extent of judi­cial guid­ance as to how an offi­cer should respond to the prob­lem or emer­gency to be con­front­ed; [5] the statu­to­ry or oth­er legal man­date under which the offi­cer was oper­at­ing; [6] the risk of dis­rup­tive intru­sion by the Judi­cia­ry into the func­tion­ing of oth­er branch­es; [7] or the pres­ence of poten­tial spe­cial fac­tors that pre­vi­ous Bivens cas­es did not con­sid­er.85

Like­wise, in the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty con­text, fac­tors akin to the Bivens fac­tors could instruct courts in defin­ing the uni­verse of prece­dent capa­ble of ren­der­ing the law clear­ly estab­lished. Impor­tant­ly, qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty fac­tors would have to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent from the Bivens fac­tors since the Bivens fac­tors are geared towards find­ing that all cas­es arise in a new con­text, and, there­fore, should be dis­missed.86 Instead, to help cure the infir­mi­ties of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty, these guid­ing fac­tors should be tai­lored to suf­fi­cient­ly lim­it the uni­verse of cas­es for the clear­ly estab­lished law inquiry with­out ren­der­ing all but those square­ly on point inad­e­quate. In oth­er words, the Court should pro­vide guid­ance geared towards find­ing that more cas­es are anal­o­gous to cas­es under review so that civil­ians can actu­al­ly meet the clear­ly estab­lished law stan­dard.

Qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty fac­tors could, for exam­ple, direct courts to lim­it the body of law to con­trol­ling cas­es involv­ing (1) an offi­cer of sim­i­lar rank, charged with sim­i­lar duties, (2) the same con­sti­tu­tion­al right at issue and claim, and (3) aris­ing from an offi­cial action sim­i­lar in kind, such as ordi­nary duties or extra­or­di­nary duties. Courts could also be required to include some ver­sion of the fifth Bivens fac­tor, “statu­to­ry or oth­er legal man­date under which the offi­cer was oper­at­ing[.]”87 Thus, aside from eval­u­at­ing the clar­i­ty of the law by ref­er­ence to anal­o­gous cas­es, courts could con­sid­er oth­er legal mate­ri­als as well as pol­i­cy man­u­als or train­ing mate­ri­als under which the accused offi­cial was oper­at­ing. Again, this would broad­en the scope of rel­e­vant sources and, pre­sum­ably, allow for more deter­mi­na­tions that the law is clear­ly estab­lished under the “fair notice” artic­u­la­tion.

After explain­ing how courts should define the clear­ly estab­lished law ques­tion, the Court could bor­row from admin­is­tra­tive law to guide low­er courts in ana­lyz­ing the clar­i­ty of the law giv­en the rel­e­vant set of cas­es. For instance, Skid­more v. Swift88 and Unit­ed States v. Mead Corp.89 togeth­er tell courts to deter­mine the degree of judi­cial def­er­ence due to an agency’s infor­mal inter­pre­ta­tion of its autho­riz­ing statute by con­sid­er­ing fac­tors such as the thor­ough­ness, for­mal­i­ty, valid­i­ty, con­sis­ten­cy, agency exper­tise, longevi­ty, and con­tem­po­rane­ity of the inter­pre­ta­tion.90 Sim­i­lar­ly, in deter­min­ing whether the uni­verse of rel­e­vant law ren­ders the law clear­ly estab­lished or not, low­er courts could con­sid­er things like (1) the breadth of the avail­able law, (2) its con­sis­ten­cy, (3) its longevi­ty, and (4) its con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ness with regard to the con­duct at issue. Con­sid­er­ing these fac­tors, the ques­tion would then be whether the defen­dant-offi­cial was in fact jus­ti­fied in believ­ing that his or her con­duct fell with­in the bounds of the law, or whether the facts, in light of rel­e­vant law, evince some kind of reck­less dis­re­gard for a known risk. In the lat­ter case, tri­al would be jus­ti­fied.

* * * * *

Because of the impor­tant place civ­il lib­er­ties hold in the Amer­i­can psy­che,91 the Court should recal­i­brate the doc­trine of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty to ensure the avail­abil­i­ty of reme­dies for con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions so that fun­da­men­tal rights are not “mere­ly pre­ca­to­ry.”92 While the Court’s con­cern over chill­ing the vig­or with which gov­ern­ment offi­cials’ dis­charge their duties, the Court can­not pro­mote its own pref­er­ences at the expense of the goals that Con­gress sought to pro­mote by enact­ing § 1983. There­fore, unless and until Con­gress cod­i­fies some kind of immu­ni­ty defense, the Court should recon­sid­er the cur­rent doc­trine of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty and pro­vide guid­ance that is help­ful in prac­tice, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly coher­ent, and con­sis­tent with con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ci­ples.


Rec­om­mend­ed Cita­tion: Vic­to­ria del Rio-Guarn­er, Rethink­ing Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty: Mak­ing Amer­i­ca Account­able Again, 2018 N.Y.U. Pro­ceed­ings 1, http://proceedings.nyumootcourt.org/2018/01/rethinking-qualified-immunity-making-america-accountable-again/.

Notes:

1. Vic­to­ria del Rio-Guarn­er is a 3L at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law. This piece is a com­men­tary on one issue of the prob­lem from the Robert F. Wag­n­er Nation­al Labor and Employ­ment Law Com­pe­ti­tion. The prob­lem was a First Amend­ment employ­ment retal­i­a­tion claim brought by a for­mer pro­fes­sor at a state uni­ver­si­ty under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The ques­tions were whether defen­dants, mem­bers of the university’s board of trustees, vio­lat­ed the professor’s free speech rights, and, in any event, whether they were enti­tled to qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty. The views expressed in this arti­cle do not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the author. Rather, this arti­cle is a dis­til­la­tion of one side of an argu­ment assigned to the author at the Com­pe­ti­tion.
2. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Sec­tion 1983 pro­vides in part:

Every per­son who, under col­or of any statute, ordi­nance, reg­u­la­tion, cus­tom, or usage, of any State or Ter­ri­to­ry or the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, sub­jects, or caus­es to be sub­ject­ed, any cit­i­zen of the Unit­ed States or oth­er per­son with­in the juris­dic­tion there­of to the depri­va­tion of any rights, priv­i­leges, or immu­ni­ties secured by the Con­sti­tu­tion and laws, shall be liable to the par­ty injured in an action at law, suit in equi­ty, or oth­er prop­er pro­ceed­ing for redress.

Because § 1983 only cre­ates a cause of action against state or local offi­cials, the Court cre­at­ed an equiv­a­lent cause of action against fed­er­al offi­cials. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Nar­cotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) (cre­at­ing the Bivens cause of action where fed­er­al offi­cials were accused of vio­lat­ing the Fourth Amend­ment).  Notably, the Court now dis­fa­vors this judi­cial­ly cre­at­ed cause of action and has sig­nif­i­cant­ly lim­it­ed its reach, so it is avail­able for a much nar­row­er range of con­sti­tu­tion­al torts than § 1983 actions. For cas­es in which the Court refused to extend Bivens, see, for exam­ple, Cor­rec­tion­al Ser­vices Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61 (2001) (Eighth Amend­ment claims against pri­vate fed­er­al prison oper­a­tor); Bush v. Lucas, 462 U.S. 367 (1983) (First Amend­ment con­text); Chap­pell v. Wal­lace, 462 U.S. 296 (1983) (race-dis­crim­i­na­tion suit against mil­i­tary offi­cers); Unit­ed States v. Stan­ley, 483 U.S. 669 (1987) (sub­stan­tive due process suit against mil­i­tary offi­cers); Schweik­er v. Chilicky, 487 U.S. 412 (1988) (pro­ce­dur­al due process suit against Social Secu­ri­ty offi­cials); FDIC v. Mey­er, 510 U.S. 471 (1994) (pro­ce­dur­al due process suit against a fed­er­al agency for wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion).
3. See 17 Stat. 13 (1871), which is some­times referred to as the Civ­il Rights Act of 1871. See, e.g., Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1870–71 (2017) (Thomas, J., con­cur­ring); Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 164 (1992); Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 34 (1983); Mon­roe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 170–76 (1961). See also William Baude, Is Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Unlaw­ful? 106 Cal. L. Rev. (forth­com­ing 2018) (man­u­script at 25–26), https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2896508; Karen M. Blum, Sec­tion 1983 Lit­i­ga­tion: The Maze, The Mud, and the Mad­ness, 23 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 913, 913 (2015) [here­inafter The Maze].
4. See, e.g., Lugar v. Edmond­son Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 934 (1982) (“The his­to­ry of the Act is replete with state­ments indi­cat­ing that Con­gress thought it was cre­at­ing a rem­e­dy as broad as the pro­tec­tion that the Four­teenth Amend­ment affords the indi­vid­ual.”); Mon­roe, 365 U.S. at 174 (“[The Act] was passed by a Con­gress that had the Klan par­tic­u­lar­ly in mind. The debates are replete with ref­er­ences to the law­less con­di­tions exist­ing in the South in 1871.” (inter­nal quo­ta­tion marks and foot­note omit­ted); Alan W. Clarke, The Ku Klux Klan Act and the Civ­il Rights Rev­o­lu­tion: How Civ­il Rights Lit­i­ga­tion Came to Reg­u­late Police and Cor­rec­tion­al Offi­cer Mis­con­duct, 7 Schol­ar 151, 153 (“[The Act’s] pur­pose, in part, was to effec­tu­ate broad con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tions set in place in the after­math of the Civ­il War. These pro­tec­tions did not remain sta­t­ic, so the his­to­ry of the Act is inter­twined with a con­tin­u­ing his­to­ry of expand­ing rights.”).
5. See Mar­bury v. Madi­son, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 163 (1803) (“The very essence of civ­il lib­er­ty cer­tain­ly con­sists in the right of every indi­vid­ual to claim the pro­tec­tion of the laws when­ev­er he receives an injury.… The gov­ern­ment of the Unit­ed States has been emphat­i­cal­ly termed a gov­ern­ment of laws, and not of men. It will cer­tain­ly cease to deserve this high appel­la­tion, if the laws fur­nish no rem­e­dy for the vio­la­tion of a vest­ed legal right.”); The Fed­er­al­ist No. 70 (Alexan­der Hamil­ton). See also Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1874–75 (2017) (Brey­er, J., dis­sent­ing).
6. See, e.g., Alan K. Chen, The Facts About Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty, 55 Emory L.J. 229, 229 (2006) (“The Unit­ed States Supreme Court ought to learn the facts about qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty, the judi­cial­ly-cre­at­ed doc­trine that often pro­tects pub­lic offi­cials from dam­ages actions for the vio­la­tion of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights.”); Rehberg v. Paulk, 566 U.S. 356, 361 (2012) (“Despite the broad terms of §1983, this Court has long rec­og­nized that the statute was not meant to effect a rad­i­cal depar­ture from ordi­nary tort law and the com­mon-law immu­ni­ties applic­a­ble in tort suits.… [and for over six­ty years] held that §1983 did not abro­gate the long-estab­lished absolute immu­ni­ty enjoyed by leg­is­la­tors for actions tak­en with­in the legit­i­mate sphere of leg­isla­tive author­i­ty.” (cit­ing Ten­ney v. Brand­hove, 341 U.S. 367, 376 (1950))); Mal­ley v. Brig­gs, 475 U.S. 335, 342 (1986) (“Since the statute on its face does not pro­vide for any immu­ni­ties, we would be going far to read into it an absolute immu­ni­ty for con­duct which was only accord­ed qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty in 1871.” (empha­sis in orig­i­nal)); Imbler v. Pacht­man, 424 U.S. 409, 417 (1976); Wood v. Strick­land, 420 U.S. 308, 317–18, 318 n.8 (1975).
7. Owen v. City of Inde­pen­dence, 445 U.S. 622, 637 (1980) (quot­ing Pier­son v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 555 (1967)).
8. See e.g., Imbler, 424 U.S. at 421 (explain­ing that courts must con­duct “a con­sid­ered inquiry into the immu­ni­ty his­tor­i­cal­ly accord­ed the rel­e­vant offi­cial at com­mon law and the inter­ests behind it”); Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 170 (1992) (Kennedy, J., con­cur­ring) (“[O]ur orig­i­nal deci­sions rec­og­niz­ing defens­es and immu­ni­ties to suits brought under 42 U.S. C. § 1983 rely on anal­o­gous lim­i­ta­tions exist­ing in the com­mon law when §1983 was enact­ed.”).
9. Pur­suant to the his­tor­i­cal anal­o­gy approach, the Court ini­tial­ly iden­ti­fied sev­er­al gov­ern­ment actors as being absolute­ly immune from lia­bil­i­ty for dam­ages under §1983. See, for exam­ple, Ten­ney, 341 U.S. 367, for leg­is­la­tors act­ing with­in the scope of leg­isla­tive author­i­ty, Pier­son, 386 U. S. 547, for judges act­ing with­in the scope of judi­cial author­i­ty, and Imbler, 424 U.S. 409, for pros­e­cu­tors in their role as advo­cates. Impor­tant­ly, absolute immu­ni­ty cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly exempts gov­ern­ment offi­cials with spe­cial func­tions or con­sti­tu­tion­al sta­tus from suit, and there­fore oper­ates as a rule rather than a stan­dard. Alan K. Chen, The Ulti­mate Stan­dard: in the Age of Con­sti­tu­tion­al Bal­anc­ing Tests, 81 Iowa L. Rev. 261, 262 (1995) [here­inafter The Ulti­mate Stan­dard] (“[T]he absolute immu­ni­ty doc­trine is rule-like. Once the Court des­ig­nates a class of offi­cials as being absolute­ly immune from suit, injured plain­tiffs are barred from bring­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al tort actions against those types of offi­cials, at least for the actions unique­ly relat­ed to the offi­cials’ posi­tions.”).
10. Under the his­tor­i­cal anal­o­gy approach, the Court has found qual­i­fied, but not absolute, immu­ni­ty for var­i­ous offi­cials. See, for exam­ple, Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974), for a State’s chief exec­u­tive offi­cer, senior and sub­or­di­nate offi­cers of the State’s Nation­al Guard, and pres­i­dent of the State uni­ver­si­ty, Wood, 420 U.S. at 318, for school board mem­bers, O’Connor v. Don­ald­son, 422 U.S. 563 (1975), for the super­in­ten­dent of a state hos­pi­tal, Pier­son, 386 U.S. 547, for police offi­cers gen­er­al­ly, and Pro­cu­nier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555 (1978), for prison offi­cials and offi­cers. Qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty is applied as a stan­dard and may be avail­able to exec­u­tive offi­cials with dis­cre­tionary func­tions. See Scheuer, 416 U.S. at 247 (defin­ing immu­ni­ty based on vari­able fac­tors such as an official’s respon­si­bil­i­ties, the scope of her dis­cre­tion, and the total­i­ty of the cir­cum­stances at the time); Chen, The Ulti­mate Stan­dard, supra note 8, at 263 (“Th[e] stan­dard-like for­mu­la­tion of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty allo­cates great dis­cre­tion to future deci­sion­mak­ers, espe­cial­ly the low­er fed­er­al courts.”).
11. See, e.g., Rehberg, 566 U.S. at 363 (“We do not sim­ply make our own judg­ment about the need for immu­ni­ty.… We con­sult the com­mon law to iden­ti­fy those gov­ern­men­tal func­tions that were his­tor­i­cal­ly viewed as so impor­tant and vul­ner­a­ble to inter­fer­ence by means of lit­i­ga­tion that some form of absolute immu­ni­ty from civ­il lia­bil­i­ty was need­ed” (inter­nal quo­ta­tions omit­ted)).
12. See Wyatt, 504 U.S. at 170 (Kennedy, J., con­cur­ring) (“The good-faith and prob­a­ble cause defense evolved into our mod­ern qual­i­fied-immu­ni­ty doc­trine.”); id. at 177 (Rehn­quist, C.J., dis­sent­ing) (“Sim­i­lar­ly, in Wood v. Strick­land, we rec­og­nized that, ‘[a]lthough there have been dif­fer­ing emphases and for­mu­la­tions of the com­mon-law immu­ni­ty,’ the gen­er­al recog­ni­tion under state law that pub­lic offi­cers are enti­tled to a good-faith defense was suf­fi­cient to sup­port the recog­ni­tion of a §1983 immu­ni­ty.” (inter­nal cita­tion omit­ted)); Chen, The Ulti­mate Stan­dard, supra note 9, at 289 (explain­ing the shift in Court’s immu­ni­ty cas­es from dif­fer­ing stan­dards for par­tic­u­lar types of offi­cials to a sin­gle, across-the-board rea­son­able­ness stan­dard).
13. See, e.g., Wyatt, 504 U.S. at 170 (1992) (Kennedy, J., con­cur­ring) (“In cas­es involv­ing absolute immu­ni­ty we adhere to that view, grant­i­ng immu­ni­ty to the extent con­sis­tent with his­tor­i­cal prac­tice. . . . In the con­text of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty for pub­lic offi­cials, how­ev­er, we have diverged to a sub­stan­tial degree from the his­tor­i­cal stan­dards.” (inter­nal cita­tions omit­ted)); Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1870–71 (2017) (Thomas, J., con­cur­ring) (not­ing that the Court “com­plete­ly refor­mu­lat­ed [the doc­trine] along prin­ci­ples not at all embod­ied in the com­mon law”); Alan K. Chen, The Bur­dens of Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty: Sum­ma­ry Judg­ment and the Role of Facts in Con­sti­tu­tion­al Tort Law, 47 Am. U. L. Rev. 1, 21–22 (1997) [here­inafter Bur­dens] (explain­ing that in cas­es pre­dat­ing the mod­ern qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty doc­trine, the Court “focused on the prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with con­sti­tu­tion­al tort lia­bil­i­ty, but did not express­ly acknowl­edge the social costs of con­sti­tu­tion­al tort lia­bil­i­ty, … inde­pen­dent of the case’s out­come,” while the cur­rent frame­work “manifest[s], in part, the Court’s increas­ing con­cern … with the actu­al bur­dens atten­dant to the lit­i­ga­tion process itself”).
14. See Mal­ley v. Brig­gs, 475 U.S. 335, 342 (1986) (“We reem­pha­size that our role is to inter­pret the intent of Con­gress in enact­ing § 1983, not to make a free­wheel­ing pol­i­cy choice, and that we are guid­ed in inter­pret­ing Con­gress’ intent by the com­mon-law tra­di­tion.”). See also Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1872 (Thomas, J., con­cur­ring) (“Until we shift the focus of our inquiry to whether immu­ni­ty exist­ed at com­mon law, we will con­tin­ue to sub­sti­tute our own pol­i­cy pref­er­ences for the man­dates of Con­gress. In an appro­pri­ate case, we should recon­sid­er our qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty jurispru­dence.”); Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 83 (2001) (Stevens, J., dis­sent­ing) (“[O]ur pri­ma­ry duty is to apply and endorse set­tled law, not to revise that law to accord with our own notions of sound pol­i­cy.”).
15. See Har­low v. Fitzger­ald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).
16. See Pear­son v. Calla­han, 555 U.S. 223 (2009).
17. See, e.g., Alan K. Chen, Rosy Pic­tures and Rene­gade Offi­cials: The Slow Death of Mon­roe v. Pape, 78 UMKC L. Rev. 889, 910 (2010) (lament­ing that “the Supreme Court has issued a series of deci­sions that have grad­u­al­ly dimin­ished [Sec­tion] 1983 in ways that make dam­ages recov­ery both cost­ly and dif­fi­cult”); Blum, The Maze, supra note 3, at 913–14 (“There is a grow­ing con­sen­sus among prac­ti­tion­ers, schol­ars, and judges that Sec­tion 1983 is no longer serv­ing its orig­i­nal and intend­ed func­tion as a vehi­cle for rem­e­dy­ing vio­la­tions of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, that it is bro­ken in many ways, and that it is sore­ly in need of repairs.”).
18. See, e.g., Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 170 (1992) (Kennedy, J., con­cur­ring).
19. Wood v. Strick­land, 420 U.S. 308, 318 (1975).
20. Id. at 321.
21. Sauci­er v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001) (hold­ing that sequenc­ing start­ing with the con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tion was manda­to­ry).
22. Har­low v. Fitzger­ald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982) (regard­ing sub­stance); Pear­son v. Calla­han, 555 U. S. 223 (2009) (con­cern­ing pro­ce­dure).
23. Har­low, 457 U.S. at 817–19 (“The sub­jec­tive ele­ment of [qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty] has proved incom­pat­i­ble with our admo­ni­tion … that insub­stan­tial claims should not pro­ceed to tri­al.… We there­fore hold that gov­ern­ment offi­cials per­form­ing dis­cre­tionary func­tions gen­er­al­ly are shield­ed from lia­bil­i­ty for civ­il dam­ages inso­far as their con­duct does not vio­late clear­ly estab­lished statu­to­ry or con­sti­tu­tion­al rights of which a rea­son­able per­son would have known.”).
24. Id. at 813–14. See also Reich­le v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012) (not­ing that qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty “pro­tects the bal­ance between vin­di­ca­tion of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights and gov­ern­ment offi­cials’ effec­tive per­for­mance of their duties by ensur­ing that offi­cials can ‘rea­son­ably … antic­i­pate when their con­duct may give rise to lia­bil­i­ty for dam­ages.’” (quot­ing Ander­son v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987))).
25. Har­low, 457 U.S. at 814 (inter­nal quo­ta­tion omit­ted). See also Chen, Bur­dens, supra note 13, at 19 (not­ing that Har­low marked a shift in the Court’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty by “identif[ying] sev­er­al gen­er­al social costs like­ly to be incurred under a sys­tem that allowed unlim­it­ed expo­sure to con­sti­tu­tion­al tort lit­i­ga­tion: (1) an  increase in the government’s lit­i­ga­tion expens­es; (2) the diver­sion of pub­lic offi­cials’ atten­tion and ener­gy away from per­form­ing their duties and toward defend­ing law­suits; and (3) the deter­rence of able peo­ple will­ing to occu­py pub­lic office.”).
26. Har­low, 457 U.S. at 818. See Chen, Bur­dens, supra note 13, at 19 (not­ing that in Har­low “the Court intro­duced and empha­sized sev­er­al new pol­i­cy con­sid­er­a­tions asso­ci­at­ed with the lit­i­ga­tion bur­dens that con­sti­tu­tion­al tort claims impose on pub­lic offi­cials and soci­ety”).
27. Har­low, 457 U.S. at 815–16 (“[A]n official’s sub­jec­tive good faith has been con­sid­ered to be a ques­tion of fact that some courts have regard­ed as inher­ent­ly requir­ing a jury.”); Pear­son v. Calla­han, 555 U. S. 223, 231 (2009) (not­ing that qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty is “immu­ni­ty from suit” and is “effec­tive­ly lost if a case is erro­neous­ly per­mit­ted to go to tri­al”).
28. Pear­son, 555 U.S. at 234–40 (undo­ing the manda­to­ry sequenc­ing set forth in Sauci­er). See also Morse v. Fred­er­ick, 551 U.S. 393, 425 (2007) (Brey­er, J., con­cur­ring in part and dis­sent­ing in part) (“This Court need not and should not decide this dif­fi­cult First Amend­ment issue on the mer­its. Rather, I believe that it should sim­ply hold that qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty bars the student’s claim for mon­e­tary dam­ages and say no more.”); Scott v. Har­ris, 550 U.S. 372, 387 (2007) (Brey­er, J., con­cur­ring) (“[L]ower courts should be free to decide the two ques­tions in what­ev­er order makes sense in the con­text of a par­tic­u­lar case.”).
29. Pear­son, 555 U.S. at 236–37.
30. Id. (hold­ing that courts could skip to the clear­ly estab­lished law analy­sis).
31. Id. The Court pro­vid­ed to help courts decide whether skip­ping the con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tion was appro­pri­ate. Id. (list­ing four fac­tors that coun­sel in for address­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tion and eleven fac­tors that coun­sel against).
32. See Aaron L. Niel­son & Christo­pher J. Walk­er, Strate­gic Immu­ni­ty, 66 Emory L.J. 55, 70–71 (2016) (explain­ing that if the sub­stan­tive con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tion is repeat­ed­ly skipped in the name of con­sti­tu­tion­al avoid­ance the law may nev­er become clear­ly estab­lished mak­ing qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty effec­tive­ly absolute).
33. See e.g., John C. Jef­fries, Jr., What’s Wrong with Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty?, 62 Fla. L. Rev. 851, 852 (2010) [here­inafter What’s Wrong] (describ­ing the “clear­ly estab­lished” law aspect of the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty doc­trine as “a mare’s nest of com­plex­i­ty and con­fu­sion”); Blum, The Maze, supra note 3, at 925 (“One has to work hard to find some doc­tri­nal con­sis­ten­cy or pre­dictabil­i­ty in the case law and the cir­cuits are hope­less­ly con­flict­ed[.]”).
34. See Har­low, 457 U.S. at 818.
35. See infra notes 36–42.
36. White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (“[I]t is again nec­es­sary to reit­er­ate the long­stand­ing prin­ci­ple that clear­ly estab­lished law should not be defined at a high lev­el of gen­er­al­i­ty.” (inter­nal quo­ta­tion marks omit­ted)).
37. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011). See also Ander­son v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639–40 (1987) (stat­ing that “the unlaw­ful­ness must be appar­ent” under the pre-exist­ing law). Empha­siz­ing this point, the Court explained that rel­e­vant prece­dent must be “par­tic­u­lar­ized” to ensure that it is not turned into “a rule of vir­tu­al­ly unqual­i­fied lia­bil­i­ty sim­ply by alleg­ing vio­la­tion of extreme­ly abstract rights.” Id. See also Brosseau v. Hau­gen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curi­am) (explain that the inquiry “must be under­tak­en in light of the spe­cif­ic con­text of the case, not as a broad gen­er­al propo­si­tion”).
38. See Hope v. Pelz­er, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002). See also Karen Blum, The Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Defense: What’s “Clear­ly Estab­lished” and What’s Not, 24 Touro L. Rev. 501, 519 (2014) (“Plain­tiffs will cite to Hope.… The defen­dants point to the lan­guage from … Brosseau, [a] case[] where the Supreme Court has required the right to be framed with more par­tic­u­lar­i­ty .… There is some­thing for every­one in the lan­guage of the Supreme Court, which is part of the con­fu­sion sur­round­ing qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty.”).
39. Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 740–41 (a case “direct­ly on point” is not required, but con­trol­ling prece­dent must put the issue “beyond debate”). For cas­es under the more strin­gent for­mu­la­tion of the stan­dard, see, for exam­ple, Ander­son, 483 U.S. at 640 (not­ing that requir­ing the right be clear­ly estab­lished in a par­tic­u­lar­ized man­ner “is not to say that an offi­cial action is pro­tect­ed by qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty unless the very action in ques­tion has pre­vi­ous­ly been held unlaw­ful”). For cas­es under the more relaxed stan­dard, see, for exam­ple, Hope, 536 U.S. at 739–41 (reject­ing Eleventh Circuit’s require­ment that case be “mate­ri­al­ly sim­i­lar” to rel­e­vant prece­dent because “offi­cials can be on notice that their con­duct vio­lates estab­lished law even in nov­el fac­tu­al sit­u­a­tions”).
40. 483 U.S. 635 (1987)
41. Id. at 640–41.
42. Id. at 641. See also Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 742 (“The gen­er­al propo­si­tion, for exam­ple, that an unrea­son­able search or seizure vio­lates the Fourth Amend­ment is of lit­tle help in deter­min­ing whether the viola­tive nature of par­tic­u­lar con­duct is clear­ly estab­lished.”).
43. See, e.g., Michael S. Catlett, Note, Clear­ly Not Estab­lished: Deci­sion­al Law and the Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Doc­trine, 47 Ariz. L. Rev. 1031, 1050–55 (2005) [here­inafter Clear­ly Not Estab­lished] (detail­ing the var­i­ous splits that exist among the cir­cuit courts due to the Court’s ambigu­ous prece­dent on this sub­ject).
44. Wil­son v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 617 (1999).
45. See San Fran­cis­co v. Shee­han, 135 S. Ct. 1774, 1776 (2015) (“But even if ‘a con­trol­ling cir­cuit prece­dent could con­sti­tute clear­ly estab­lished fed­er­al law in these cir­cum­stances,’ … it does not do so here.”).
46. See Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1868 (2017) (“When the courts are divid­ed on an issue so cen­tral to the cause of action alleged, a rea­son­able offi­cial lacks the notice required before impos­ing lia­bil­i­ty.”).
47. See, e.g., Catlett, Note, Clear­ly Not Estab­lished, supra note 43, at 1042–50 (explain­ing how the Third, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Cir­cuits use per­sua­sive mate­ri­als in their qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty analy­sis); Richard B. Saphire, Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty in Sec­tion 1983 Cas­es and the Role of State Deci­sion­al Law, 35 Ariz. L. Rev. 621, 631–32 (1993) (detail­ing how cir­cuits treat state court deci­sions in their qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty analy­sis).
48. See, e.g., Hope v. Pelz­er, 536 U.S. 730, 741–42 (2002) (hold­ing that, even though there was no Eleventh Cir­cuit prece­dent on point, the Dis­trict Court in the Eleventh Cir­cuit should have found that the law was clear­ly estab­lished based on Fifth Cir­cuit prece­dent, an Alaba­ma Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions reg­u­la­tion, and a Depart­ment of Jus­tice report).
49. See gen­er­al­ly Catlett, Note, Clear­ly Not Estab­lished, supra note 43.
50. Capo­e­man v. Reed, 754 F.2d 1512, 1514 (9th Cir. 1985). See also Catlett, Note, Clear­ly Not Estab­lished, supra note 43, at 1048 & n.138, 141.
51. See Catlett, Note, Clear­ly Not Estab­lished, supra note 43, at 1047 & n.131 (not­ing that “D.C. Cir­cuit also looks to the law of the high­est court in the state in which the case arose” (cit­ing Led­er­man v. Unit­ed States, 291 F.3d 36, 48 (D.C. Cir. 2002)).
52. See Catlett, Note, Clear­ly Not Estab­lished, supra note 43, at 1049–50, 1049 n.146.
53. See, e.g., Golod­ner v. Berlin­er, 770 F.3d 196, 205 (2d Cir. 2014) (“Few issues relat­ed to qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty have caused more ink to be spilled than whether a par­tic­u­lar right has been clear­ly estab­lished, main­ly because courts must cal­i­brate, on a case-by-case basis, how gen­er­al­ly or specif­i­cal­ly to define the right at issue.”); Charles R. Wil­son, “Loca­tion, Loca­tion, Loca­tion”: Recent Devel­op­ments in the Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Defense, 57 N.Y.U. Ann. Surv. Am. L. 445, 447 (2000) (“Wad­ing through the doc­trine of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty is one of the most moral­ly and con­cep­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing tasks fed­er­al appel­late court judges rou­tine­ly face.”).
54. See, e.g., Niel­son, Strate­gic Immu­ni­ty, supra note 32, at 92 (“[I]f the issue is con­tro­ver­sial, the pan­el may fear rever­sal. One way to min­i­mize that chance would be not to reach the con­sti­tu­tion­al mer­its. By decid­ing an issue rel­e­vant only in a par­tic­u­lar case … the deci­sion [] be[comes] less cert­wor­thy.”).
55. See Karen Blum et. al., Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Devel­op­ments: Not Much Hope Left for Plain­tiffs, 29 Touro L. Rev. 633, 654 (2013) (“The Court’s lan­guage in Hope is clear­ly more plain­tiff-friend­ly, but since that deci­sion, the fair warn­ing for­mu­la has been vir­tu­al­ly ignored by the Supreme Court.” (inter­nal quo­ta­tion marks omit­ted)).
56. See Mark R. Brown, The Fall and Rise of Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty: From Hope to Har­ris, 9 Nev. L.J. 185, 197–202 (2008) (dis­cussing cas­es in which minor fac­tu­al dif­fer­ences from pri­or cas­es pre­clud­ed lia­bil­i­ty even in the face of “patent wrongs” and “hor­ren­dous facts”).
57. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011).
58. See Chen, Bur­dens, supra note 13.
59. Id.
60. See, e.g., Brosseau v. Hau­gen, 543 U.S. 194, 199–201 (2004) (hold­ing that it was not clear­ly estab­lished that an offi­cer may not shoot a man accused of non­vi­o­lent crimes in the back because he was flee­ing from the police); White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (hold­ing it was not clear­ly estab­lished that police offi­cer may not shoot and kill an indi­vid­ual through the win­dow of his rur­al home in the course of inves­ti­gat­ing an ear­li­er road-rage inci­dent involv­ing the victim’s broth­er). See also Salazar-Limon v. City of Hous­ton, Tex., 137 S. Ct. 1277, 1283 (2017) (Sotomay­or, J. dis­sent­ing from denial of cert.) (not­ing that deny­ing cer­tio­rari “con­tin­ues a dis­turb­ing trend regard­ing the use of this Court’s resources. We have not hes­i­tat­ed to sum­mar­i­ly reverse courts for wrong­ly deny­ing offi­cers the pro­tec­tion of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty in cas­es involv­ing the use of force.… But we rarely inter­vene where courts wrong­ly afford offi­cers the ben­e­fit of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty in these same cas­es.”).
61. See gen­er­al­ly Niel­son, Strate­gic Immu­ni­ty, supra note 31, at 95–117 (review­ing col­lect­ed cas­es and find­ing empir­i­cal evi­dence sug­gest­ing that judge’s per­son­al pref­er­ences impact the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty analy­sis). But see gen­er­al­ly
Adam M. Sama­ha, Look­ing over A Crowd-Do More Inter­pre­tive Sources Mean More Dis­cre­tion?, 92 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 554 (2017) (sug­gest­ing that as the num­ber of cas­es on a point increas­es, judi­cial dis­cre­tion as to choos­ing an out­come in a par­tic­u­lar case is con­strained, not enhanced).
62. See Niel­son, Strate­gic Immu­ni­ty, supra note 31, at 95–117 (empir­i­cal evi­dence shows stag­na­tion).
63. See id. at 69 (law will nev­er be clear­ly estab­lished if leapfrog­ging con­tin­u­al­ly occurs).
64. See Chen, The Ulti­mate Stan­dard, supra note 8, at 309–16.
65. Ander­son v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 647–68 (1987) (Stevens, J., dis­sent­ing).
66. Chen, The Ulti­mate Stan­dard, supra note 8, at 309–16 (“tips the scales by per­mit­ting the deci­sion­mak­er to stack an addi­tion­al gov­ern­ment inter­est not ordi­nar­i­ly con­sid­ered to be on the government’s side.”).
67. See, e.g., Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1870–72 (2017) (Thomas, J., con­cur­ring); Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 164–70 (1992) (Kennedy, J., con­cur­ring); Baude, Is Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Unlaw­ful?, supra note 3, at 11–17.
68. See Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1870–72 (Thomas, J., con­cur­ring).
69. See Chen, Bur­dens, supra note 13, at 28–98.
70. Har­low v. Fitzger­ald, 457 U.S. 800, 815–16 (1982).
71. See Chen, Bur­dens, supra note 13, at 19–27.
72. Id.
73. Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1871 (quot­ing Ander­son v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641–43 (1987)).
74. See Chen, The Ulti­mate Stan­dard, supra note 8, at 309–16 (explain­ing that the frame­works for con­sti­tu­tion­al torts are fact spe­cif­ic and argu­ing that it makes no sense to eval­u­ate clear­ly estab­lished law as an across the board stan­dard, with­out regard to nuances of con­text). See also Ander­son, 483 U.S. at 647–68 (1987) (Stevens, J., dis­sent­ing).
75. See Baude, Is Qual­i­fied Immu­ni­ty Unlaw­ful?, supra note 3, at 39–44 (sug­gest­ing that the Court has sent a strong sig­nals to low­ers courts because of the dom­i­nance qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty cas­es in its dock­et, espe­cial­ly since “all but two of the Court’s awards of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty were revers­ing the low­er court’s denial of immu­ni­ty below”).
76. Id.
77. Id. at 39–40 (not­ing that the dom­i­nance of qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty on Court dock­et and strong hint to grant, only two cas­es revers­ing grant and both from a long time ago).
78. See supra note 33–42.
79. 403 U.S. 388 (1971).
80. See, e.g., Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Coun­cil, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 865 (1984) (“Courts must, in some cas­es, rec­on­cile com­pet­ing polit­i­cal inter­ests, but not on the basis of the judges per­son­al pol­i­cy pref­er­ences”); see also Lex­mark Int’l, Inc. v. Sta­t­ic Con­trol Com­po­nents, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1387–88 (2014) (in the con­text of the zone of inter­est doc­trine “[j]ust as a court can­not apply its inde­pen­dent judg­ment to rec­og­nize a cause of action that Con­gress has denied, it can­not lim­it a cause of action that con­gress has cre­at­ed mere­ly because ‘pru­dence’ dic­tates.”).
81. Cf. Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1859–60 (2017) (pro­vid­ing exam­ples of fac­tors that “might prove instruc­tive” in deter­min­ing whether cas­es are sim­i­lar to prece­dent “[w]ithout endeav­or­ing to cre­ate an exhaus­tive list”).
82. See Niel­son, Strate­gic Immu­ni­ty, supra note 32, at 57–65, 76–82 (analo­giz­ing the ratio­nale for con­trol­ling agency dis­cre­tion to the ratio­nale for cab­in­ing judi­cial dis­cre­tion in the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty con­text, and call­ing for the Court to rec­og­nize and address the lat­ter just as it has done with the for­mer).
83. Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1859–60.
84. Id. Where there is no statute pro­vid­ing a cause of action, the Court allows civil­ians to seek dam­ages from fed­er­al offi­cers, i.e., bring a Bivens claim, only if the claim falls with­in one of the fol­low­ing three con­texts: (1) alleged vio­la­tions of the Fourth Amendment’s pro­hi­bi­tion against unrea­son­able search and seizures, see Bivens, 403 U.S., at 397; (2) alleged vio­la­tions of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause based on unlaw­ful dis­crim­i­na­tion, see Davis v. Pass­man, 442 U.S. 228, 248–249 (1979) (con­gress­man accused of dis­crim­i­nat­ing against a staffer on the basis of gen­der); and (3) alleged vio­la­tions of the Eighth Amendment’s Cru­el and Unusu­al Pun­ish­ment Clause, see Carl­son v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 19 (1980). For a dis­cus­sion on the his­to­ry and evo­lu­tion of Bivens claims and exam­ple of the Court’s analy­sis, see, for exam­ple, Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1854–69. See also Cor­rec­tion­al Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61 (2001); Min­neci v. Pol­lard, 565 U.S. 118 (2012).
85. Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1860.
86See Ziglar, 137 S. Ct. at 1857 (2017) (explain­ing fac­tors after stat­ing that “expand­ing the Bivens rem­e­dy is now a ‘dis­fa­vored’ judi­cial activ­i­ty.” (quot­ing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)).
87. Id. at 1859–60.
88. 323 U.S. 134 (1944).
89. 533 U.S. 218 (2001).
90. See id. at 228 (not­ing that def­er­ence to agen­cies depends on things like “thor­ough­ness, log­ic and expert­ness, its fit with pri­or inter­pret … the degree of the agency’s care, its con­sis­ten­cy, for­mal­i­ty, and rel­a­tive expert­ness, and to the per­sua­sive­ness of the agency’s posi­tion, …”); Skid­more, 323 U.S. at 140 (“The weight of such a[n] [agency] judg­ment in a par­tic­u­lar case will depend upon the thor­ough­ness evi­dent in its con­sid­er­a­tion, the valid­i­ty of its rea­son­ing, [and] its con­sis­ten­cy with ear­li­er and lat­er pro­nounce­ments, …”). See also Kristin Hick­man and Matthew D. Krueger, In Search of the Mod­ern Skid­more Stan­dard, 107 Colum. L. Rev. 1235, 1259 (2007), avail­able at http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/390. (explain­ing that Mead’s artic­u­la­tion of Skid­more “can be dis­tilled to five key fac­tors in mod­ern Skid­more analy­sis: thor­ough­ness, for­mal­i­ty, valid­i­ty, con­sis­ten­cy, and agency exper­tise. As not­ed above, longevi­ty and con­tem­po­rane­ity may togeth­er com­prise a sixth key fac­tor”).
91. See supra note 5.
92. Davis v. Pass­man, 442 U.S. 228, 242 (1979).