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Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Supreme Court Ruling on Lawsuits Is a Defeat for Government Officials

Supreme Court Ruling on Lawsuits Is a Defeat for Government Officials

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week made it more difficult for government officials to have civil rights lawsuits against them dismissed before trial.

The 5-4 ruling in the case of a prison inmate from the District of Columbia was a victory for civil rights plaintiffs and a defeat for public officials, including school board members and administrators.

The high court rejected a procedural rule adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia under which a plaintiff alleging that a government official had an unconstitutional motive in denying the person's civil rights would have to provide "clear and convincing evidence" of the motive to allow the suit to proceed to trial.

School officials face an increasing number of suits based on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, the Reconstruction-era statute that allows citizens to sue officials if they believe their rights have been violated "under color" of government authority. The statute is best known today as Section 1983, for its place in the U.S. legal code.

But officials can seek dismissal of such suits before trial by invoking so-called qualified immunity. The Supreme Court has ruled that officials who carry out their duties in good faith and in observance of clearly established constitutional and statutory rights are immune from suit.

At issue in Crawford-El v. Britton (Case No. 96-827) was the "clear and convincing evidence" rule adopted by the federal appeals court here.

By requiring plaintiffs to provide strong evidence, even before pretrial discovery, that an official had an unconstitutional motive in violating someone's civil rights, the appeals court made it much easier for public officials to have lawsuits thrown out based on qualified immunity.

Retaliation Alleged

The appeal before the high court involved Leonard Rollon Crawford-El, a Washington inmate who alleged that a prison official retaliated against him for giving newspaper interviews about prison conditions. The official allegedly delayed the shipment of Mr. Crawford-El's personal belongings when he was transferred to a prison in Florida.

The Clinton administration, as well as the attorneys general of 34 states, supported the procedural rule adopted by the appeals court. The supporters argued it would help dispose of what they see as frivolous suits such as Mr. Crawford-El's.

If the Supreme Court had approved the rule, other federal appeals courts would have likely adopted similar ones, thus making it easier for civil rights suits across the country to be thrown out before trial.

But the high court majority said it was up to Congress, not the judicial branch, to adopt such a rule.

The appellate court's rule "lacks any common law pedigree" and "undermines the very purpose of Section 1983--to provide a remedy for the violation of federal rights," said Justice John Paul Stevens, who was joined in the majority by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 23

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