Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court’s Most Conservative Justice, Trashes Qualified Immunity Again
Clarence Thomas is no liberal hero. The associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court is the most conservative member atop the highest rung of the American judiciary. And he has once again railed against qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it almost comically difficult to hold government officials accountable for misconduct when they violate your rights.
“As I have noted before, our qualified immunity jurisprudence stands on shaky ground,” he wrote today.
On the congressional level, that rallying cry has primarily been championed by Democrats, tied to police reform legislation that Republicans have resisted. Among the state actors recently protected by qualified immunity: two cops who tased a suicidal man they knew was covered in gasoline, causing him to burst into flames; a cop who led a bungled SWAT raid that saw an innocent 78-year-old’s home damaged with flash-bang grenades; a cop who shot a 15-year-old on his way to school; a cop who shot a 10-year-old while aiming at a nonthreatening dog.
The legal doctrine prohibits victims from suing government actors for misconduct unless their exact behavior has been deemed unconstitutional somewhere in a preexisting court ruling. If not, then victims are out of luck, even when the court admits that the state violated their rights. In all the above cases, the plaintiffs were not given the privilege of bringing their cases before a jury.
Last year, Thomas expressed his skepticism toward qualified immunity in Baxter v. Bracey, a case that saw two cops unleash a police dog on a man who had already surrendered. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case, with Thomas as the lone dissenter.
But qualified immunity doesn’t only protect police. It protects government officials in general, something that Thomas honed in on today as he protested the Court’s refusal to hear a different case: Hoggard v. Rhodes, a lawsuit surrounding a student who had her First Amendment rights violated by Arkansas State University. The administrators received qualified immunity, and thus will not be held accountable.
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