Washington, DC – The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday morning that it will not take up eight challenges to qualified immunity for police officers that had been submitted for review to the nation’s highest court.
The decision not to revisit the legal doctrine, revealed in an order released on June 15, was surprising to many who had hoped pressure from nationwide protests over the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police would force the Supreme Court justices to review those cases.
However, the matters still not completely settled because new legislation was introduced in Congress that would eliminate qualified immunity for police officers.
Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that protects individual police officers from liability for civil damages for actions taken while acting in the capacity of a law enforcement officers, as long as the officer didn’t violate a person’s rights, according to the Public Agency Training Council’s website.
If an officer violates a person’s rights, they are not eligible to claim qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity does not offer any protection from criminal charges but was established by the U.S. Supreme Court to curb gratuitous litigation against police officers.
On a practical level, it allows law enforcement officers to make arrests and split-second decisions regarding use of force without fear of constantly having to defend themselves personally from damages, as long as the force was legal.
The issue has come up in the courts multiple times in recent years and there were eight qualified immunity cases submitted for review by the current U.S. Supreme Court, ABC News reported.
The justices review petitions during their weekly private conferences and four justices must vote to take up a case in order for it to be placed on the highest court’s docket for this year.
Experts have warned that police will hesitate to do their jobs and enforce the law if they face a threat of civil litigation from every act performed in the line of duty, ABC News reported.
“You’re trying to strike a balance,” Chris Walker, a law professor at The Ohio State University, said ahead of the decision. “You don’t want to have a legal system or an officer who is going to shirk from doing their duty. And so if you’re afraid of liability or being dragged into court, you might not actually faithfully execute the law.”
Walker warned that it was a sticky position for some of the justices who have openly opposed qualified immunity because tossing out well-established legal precedent sets the stage for similar challenges, ABC News reported.
“Justices [Elena] Kagan, [Stephen] Breyer, and even Ginsburg are going to be really worried about stare decisis,” the law professor said. “If we just get rid of a doctrine that was established in the 1960s and that we’ve repeatedly reaffirmed, what do we do with Roe v. Wade?”
“Stare decisis” is the legal principle which refers to respecting precedent when deciding a case, according to ABC News.
There was a chance the current Supreme Court would examine revisions to qualified immunity that would scale back the amount of protection given to law enforcement officers but not eliminate it altogether, but hopes for that alternative were dashed by the order released Monday.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Clarence Thomas have all been openly critical of qualified immunity in the past.