« Judge Eric Murphy on Denying Equal Protection
Michael Ramsey
| Main | More from Neal Goldfarb on Corpus Linguistics and the Second Amendment
Michael Ramsey »

08/26/2019

Jay Schweikert on Originalism and Qualified Immunity
Michael Ramsey

A Cato-at-Liberty, Jay Schweikert: Dissenters in Fifth Circuit Qualified Immunity Case Misunderstand the Relationship between “Originalism” and Section 1983 (commenting on the dissent in Cole v. Hunter highlighted here).  From the introduction:

Perhaps sensing that the tide is turning against qualified immunity, Judges Ho and Oldman – both Trump appointees themselves – wrote separately [in Cole v. Hunter] to respond to the general idea that qualified immunity should be reconsidered. ...

[In their view], qualified immunity may well lack any plausible textual or historical basis. But because, say Judges Ho and Oldham, the Supreme Court erroneously expanded the reach of Section 1983 in Monroe v. Pape (by holding that state officials could be sued even when they were acting contrary to a state’s own laws), then two wrongs make a right, and we should just keep qualified immunity as is, as a kind of compensating error. Indeed, they conclude this section of the opinion by saying: “If we’re not going to do it right, then perhaps we shouldn’t do it at all” – with “it” here meaning, actually interpret statutes as written.

Lest this argument seem like an abstruse, academic rejoinder, I can personally attest, having now participated in or observed several debates on qualified immunity, that this is the most frequently and fervently raised rebuttal to the otherwise insurmountable assertion that modern qualified immunity lacks any plausible historical basis. But despite its veneer of reasonableness, this “two wrongs make a right” argument is so deeply, fundamentally flawed, on so many levels, that it’s worth spelling out each of them in detail ...

And from further along, on Monroe v. Pape

Judges Ho and Oldman (and Justice Scalia, in his Crawford-El opinion) seem to take it as a given that Monroe v. Pape was wrongly decided, which is what gives them justification to accept the obvious (but in their view, counter-balancing) errors with qualified immunity itself. But that assumption simply isn’t justified – indeed, there’s a very good originalist argument that Monroe was, in fact, correctly decided, which of course would entirely negate this “two wrongs make a right” defense of qualified immunity. To restate Justice Scalia’s (and by extension, Judges Ho and Oldman’s) criticism of Monroe: The text of Section 1983 creates liability for those who act “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State.” Thus, in Justice Scalia’s view, a state official can only be liable under Section 1983 if they were, in fact, acting in accordance with state law. Therefore, by holding that state officials could be liable even when their actions were not authorized by state law, the Monroe Court massively expanded liability under Section 1983, in contravention of the statutory language.

Though superficially plausible, the problem with this argument is that it glosses over the meaning of the phrase “under color of.” After all, the statute could have been written to cover violations committed “in accordance with any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State.” If that were what the statute said, Justice Scalia’s criticism of Monroe would be well taken. But, as a historical, originalist matter, that is simply not what the phrase “under color of” means. To the contrary, this phrase is actually a longstanding term-of-art which was well understood to encompass false claims to authority. As detailed by Steven Winter in an article on exactly this subject, the use of this phrase goes back more than 500 years, to an English bail bond statute that voided obligations taken by sheriffs “by colour of their offices,” if they failed to comply with statutory requirements. In other words, it encompassed illegal acts by government agents who abused or exceeded their statutory authority – which is exactly the sort of unlawful conduct recognized by Monroe. Therefore, contra Justice Scalia’s suggestion in Crawford-El, a faithfully originalist understanding of Section 1983 would seem to support the result in Monroe. And if that’s the case, then obviously the whole “two wrongs make a right” theory collapses.