In two unsigned opinions Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of police officers seeking qualified immunity from allegations of excessive force.
In both cases, the justices overturned lower court decisions that went against the officers.
The rulings – and the fact that no justice publicly dissented – suggests that the court is not willing, at least for now, to radically transform how it considers qualified immunity cases.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine, developed by the courts, that shields law enforcement from liability for constitutional violations including allegations of excessive force. In recent years, legal scholars, lawmakers and judges have criticized the doctrine, arguing that it is not grounded in the proper legal authorities and too often shields officials from accountability. Calls for the court to take a substantial new look at the doctrine intensified after the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
Under existing precedent, an officer is not liable, even if he or she violates the Constitution, unless it was “clearly established” by prior cases that the conduct at issue was unconstitutional. Critics say that bar is too high and forces those claiming excessive force to search for a prior case with nearly identical facts.
Last term, there were two instances where the court wiped away lower court opinions that had granted qualified immunity to government officials, leading some to believe the court was moving in a new direction to chip away at the doctrine.
But on Monday, the justices made clear that last term’s cases were outliers, and that the traditional framework could stand.
“Monday’s cases are further evidence that the Supreme Court is not going to reconsider the fundamentals of the doctrine and the justices are reaffirming the general idea that in most cases plaintiffs still need to find a nearly identical precedent to make their case,” said Jay Schweikert, a research fellow the Cato Institute who studies the issue.
“This means that until and unless Congress addresses qualified immunity, public officials can continue to violate people’s rights with impunity” Schweikert said.