Justices Ease Rule on Immunity Decisions for Public Officials

By Mark Walsh — January 21, 2009 2 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court today made it easier for judges to grant educators, the police, and other public officials immunity from lawsuits challenging their official actions.

The court effectively overruled one of its own precedents that said judges determining whether government officials were entitled to “qualified immunity” must first decide whether a constitutional violation had even occured before turning to the immunity question.

That “order of battle,” from a 2001 case known as Saucier v. Katz, sparked criticism from federal judges and municipal governments, including school districts, which argued that courts were often forced to settle thorny constitutional questions even when many cases could be disposed of more easily because the officials involved were immune from suit.

Under the high court’s precedents on qualified immunity, public school educators and certain other government officials are immune from being sued unless they violate “clearly established” constitutional or statutory rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

The principle has enormous practical consequences for such officials. If they are sued and can establish their immunity fairly early in the legal process, they are spared often lengthy and costly litigation.

The argument for retaining the Saucier procedure is that without first addressing constitutional issues, many judges would decide suits against officials on immunity grounds without advancing the development of constitutional law. Thus, in the next case, educators or police officers could again claim that the law in a particular area was not clearly established.

In a unanimous decision for the court today in Pearson v. Callahan (Case No. 07-751), Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that “the Saucier procedure comes with a price” and “should not be regarded as an inflexible requirement.”

“The procedure sometimes results in a substantial expenditure of scarce judicial resources on difficult questions that have no effect on the outcome of the case,” Justice Alito said.

He said lower federal court judges are in the best position to decide whether to follow the rule, and that often they will want to examine constitutional questions first.

I wrote about the oral arguments in the case here. The underlying case dealt with a challenged police search, but the justices had asked the parties to address whether the Saucier decision should be overruled. Among the interesting groups who had chimed on in that with friend-of-the-court briefs were the Texas Association of School Boards, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a group of 31 states.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.