In the seventh in my Section 1983 Primer series, published on October 25, 2012, I blogged about the Supreme Court‘s approach to absolute immunity. I specifically referred to the three categories of absolutely immune defendants–legislators, judges and prosecutors–and also discussed the underlying policy considerations as well as the Court’s functional approach.
In the eighth in this series, published on February 20, 2013, I blogged about absolute legislative immunity.
I discuss absolute judicial immunity in this post.
Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 537 (1967): The Seminal Judicial Immunity Decision
The Supreme Court held in Pierson v. Ray that judges are protected by absolute immunity when they act in a judicial capacity, even if they act unconstitutionally. The Court relied on the background of common law immunity in 1871, when section 1983 was enacted. In Pierson itself, a state court judge was ruled absolutely immune from damages liability under section 1983 even though he had convicted the plaintiff under an unconstitutional statute. For immunity purposes, it did not matter even if the judge did so knowingly.
Purposes of Absolute Judicial Immunity
Absolute judicial immunity is intended to protect the judicial process and not the judges themselves. If judges, who are easy targets, had to be concerned that rulings in civil or criminal cases would generate section 1983 claims against them–after all, someone almost always loses–this could have an adverse effect on their independent decision-making. In addition, section 1983 claims against judges would necessarily involve the relitigation of earlier cases. Further, there is ordinarily a remedy available: an appeal.
The Relevance of Subject Matter Jurisdiction
However, for absolute immunity to apply, the judge must not have acted in the complete absence of all subject matter jurisdiction. If, for example, a probate court judge without any subject matter jurisdiction whatever over criminal cases were to convict a person of a crime unconstitutionally, that judge would not be protected by absolute immunity.
On the other hand, if the existence of subject matter jurisdiction is merely debatable, absolute immunity would still apply, as made clear by the Court in Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978). Read the rest of this entry »
As most everyone knows by now, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court (5-4, opinion by Justice Scalia) for the first time found an individual Second Amendment right to possess a handgun in one’s home for self-defense. Accordingly, it struck down a District of Columbia prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home. Thereafter, and not surprisingly, the Court (again 5-4) held in McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 2020 (2010), that the Second Amendment, through incorporation, applies fully to the states and local governments. See my post of November 8, 2010: Gun Control, the Second Amendment and Section 1983 After McDonald v. City of Chicago.
Heller‘s Dicta on Permissible Regulations
In Heller, Justice Scalia asserted that the Court’s decision did not mean that there were no limitations on this Second Amendment right. He listed the following kinds of governmental regulations that were still permissible.
1. Prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill
2. Prohibitions on the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as school and government buildings
3. Imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms
4. Prohibitions, historical in nature, on the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons” such as M-16 rifles.
No constitutional right is absolute. So one question in the Second Amendment setting is what the level of scrutiny is. The Court in Heller ducked the issue, pointing out that whatever the standard, the District of Columbia’s prohibition could not stand. On the other hand, the Court stated that the standard is more than rational basis. That’s all we know at this point.
The level of scrutiny is surely relevant to the Court’s dicta on permissible regulations, particularly with regard to restrictions on, and qualifications for, gun ownership and also with regard to those “sensitive places” where the carrying of firearms may be prohibited.
The Court also did not discuss the question whether the Second Amendment right to possess firearms for self-defense applies outside the home. There is already a split in the circuits on this.
A Circuit Split On Carrying
The Seventh Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Posner, held that the Second Amendment does indeed apply outside the home. It therefore struck down an Illinois statute prohibiting carrying a loaded gun, concealed or not. Moore v. Madigan, 702 F.3d 933 (7th Cir. 2012)(2-1), petition for en banc rehearing denied. In contrast, the Tenth Circuit, in a concealed weapon decision less than a week old as of this writing, ruled that the carrying of concealed weapons is not protected by the Second Amendment. Peterson v. Martinez, No. 11-1149 (10th Cir. 2-22-13). See also Kachalsky v. County of Westchester, 701 F.3d 81 (2nd Cir. 2012), which upheld a New York statute that required an applicant for a permit to carry a concealed handgun in public to show “proper cause,” such as a need for self-defense greater than that of the general public.
The question whether the Second Amendment applies outside the home may therefore be taken up by the Court in the coming 2013 or 2014 Term.
Comment: An Analogy to Roe v. Wade
In addition to the practical importance of getting answers to these questions, I think it will be fascinating from a jurisprudential and historical perspective to see how the Court goes about articulating the scope of the Second Amendment post-Heller. While not everyone will appreciate the analogy, Heller reminds me of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), another controversial decision where the Court ruled for the first time that a women has a substantive due process right to terminate her pregnancy, a right that some believe the Court “made up.” In the years following Roe, the Court spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to articulate the scope of this right. Indeed, Roe remains a doctrinal battlefield forty years later.
It remains to be seen how much time and energy the Court (and dedicated organizations and litigants) will have to devote to the Second Amendment in order to set out its scope adequately.
In the seventh of my Section 1983 Primer series, published on October 25, 2012, I blogged about the Supreme Court‘s approach to absolute immunity under section 1983. I specifically referred to the three categories of absolutely immune defendants–legislators, judges and prosecutors–and also discussed the underlying policy considerations and the Court’s functional approach. In this post I discuss legislative immunity.
Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367 (1951): The Seminal Decision
Tenney dealt with the potential liability of members of a California legislative sub-committee investigating Communism subversion. The plaintiff, an admitted Communist, sued them personally for damages under section 1983, alleging that they perverted the investigative process and violated his First Amendment rights. Ruling for the defendants in an opinion by Justice Frankfurter (only Justice Douglas dissented), the Court held that they were protected by absolute immunity from damages liability as a matter of section 1983 interpretation.
The Court made several points that continue to be significant to this day. First, even though section 1983 on its face says nothing about absolute immunity for anyone, the statute is to be interpreted against the common law immunity background in 1871, when section 1983 was enacted. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to overturn the well-established immunity of state legislators, it would have said so explicitly. Second, the Court observed that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct took place during a legislative investigation, which was a normal part of the legislative process.
The Impact and Coverage of Legislative Immunity
The point of absolute legislative immunity is to protect the democratic decision-making process from the chilling effect of lawsuits, as well as from liability. Once a legislator successfully asserts absolute immunity (typically by motion to dismiss or for summary judgment), he or she is no longer a defendant in the section 1983 action even if the allegations of the complaint are true. Therefore, it is the plaintiff who bears the costs of the constitutional deprivation.
Absolute immunity extends beyond state legislative conduct to include regional and local legislative conduct as well. Lake County Estates v. Tahoe Regional Planning Authority, 440 U.S. 966 (1979)(regional legislators); Bogan v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44 (1998)(local legislators).
Recall, however, that the Court takes a functional approach to immunity, so that legislative immunity applies only to legislative acts and not, for example, to administrative acts.
Absolute legislative immunity is powerful medicine. On balance, though, it is justified by the need to promote independent legislative decision-making by defendants. After all, legislators are highly visible targets of litigation: their decisions will inevitably make many people unhappy. Also, there is a political solution available: the ballot.
Next: Absolute Judicial Immunity
This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Constitution that is intended for a general audience. Previous posts introduced the Constitution and then rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution.
The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states and local governments from denying persons the equal protection of the laws: similarly situated persons must be treated in the same way. The equal protection clause also applies to the federal government through the Fifth Amendment‘s due process clause.
The equal protection clause was originally intended to protect newly freed blacks from being treated disadvantageously because of the their race. However, it is written in broader terms and covers discrimination against persons in general. But this does not mean that whenever government discriminates or classifies, it violates equal protection. Governments could not function if they could not draw lines or classify when they legislate.
The Four Equal Protection Tests
Over the years, the Supreme Court has developed four different tests that it uses, depending on the kind of government discrimination or classification involved.
Strict Scrutiny. When government discriminates or classifies on grounds of race or ethnic origin, the Court uses “strict scrutiny.” This means that in order for the challenged discrimination to be upheld, the government must overcome a heavy burden. It must show that the discrimination promotes a compelling government interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Under this test, racial classifications that disadvantage racial minorities never pass strict scrutiny, while those that advantage racial minorities and disadvantage a racial majority (as in affirmative action) sometimes survive strict scrutiny.
Intermediate Level Scrutiny. When government discriminates or classifies on the basis of sex or gender, the Court uses “intermediate level scrutiny.” This is not as burdensome on government as strict scrutiny but it does have “bite”: here, the government must show that the discrimination promotes an important government interest and is substantially related to achieving that interest. In these cases, the Court is sensitive to the improper use of sexual stereotypes.
Rational Basis Review. When government discriminates or classifies in connection with economic regulation and business, then the Court uses “rational basis review.” This kind of equal protection review is very deferential to government. When applied, rational basis review almost invariably results in a determination that the government classification is constitutional.
Actual Purpose Review. This kind of review is a relatively recent arrival on the scene. The Supreme Court announced several decades ago that the equal protection clause prohibits government from discriminating against persons just because of who they are. The Court used this principle some years ago, in Romer v. Evans, to strike down a Colorado constitutional amendment that disadvantaged homosexuals: it found that the amendment was actually motivated by animus toward them.
Thus far, actual purpose review has been used sparingly by the Supreme Court. However, it may come into play in the same-sex marriage cases that are currently before the Court. So too could intermediate level scrutiny.
I have written an article about the birth of section 1983 in the Supreme Court that I hope to have published this year.
The article is entitled: Section 1983 Is Born: The Supreme Court Stories of Tenney v. Brandhove and Monroe v. Pape.
It is available as a Working Paper on SSRN and can be downloaded here.
The following is an abstract of this Working Paper:
Section 1983, enacted in 1871, famously provides a damages remedy against state and local government officials and local governments for violations of constitutional rights. But it was only in 1951, in the seminal decision of Tenney v. Brandhove, a legislative immunity case involving an admitted Communist, that the Supreme Court for the first time expressly interpreted the language of section 1983. Ten years later, in 1961, the Court handed down another seminal section 1983 decision: Monroe v. Pape involved a section 1983 claim brought by an African-American alleging police misconduct. Both cases pitted two influential Supreme Court justices and FDR appointees, Felix Frankfurter and William Douglas, against one another in majority and dissenting opinions. Justice Frankfurter was an unremitting advocate of federalism, deference to politically accountable bodies, and judicial restraint. In contrast, Justice Douglas was an ardent proponent of individual rights who had relatively little concern for federalism.
I tell of the birth of section 1983 jurisprudence through the stories of these two cases. Their stories are contained in the papers of Justices Frankfurter and Douglas and in their majority and dissenting opinions. They are also contained in the parties’ petitions for certiorari and briefs and in Monroe’s oral argument. Moreover, these stories must be understood against the background of the political and social settings in which Tenney and Monroe arose. The Cold War and anti-Communist sentiment situate Tenney while the Civil Rights movement and the post-Brown era situate Monroe.
These stories are of interest to section 1983 scholars, to historians of civil rights and constitutional law and to general readers. For one thing, Justice Frankfurter played an outsized role in both decisions. For another, these decisions demonstrate that the early and deep tension between individual rights and federalism — a tension that began with the Fourteenth Amendment and continues to this day — was present at the very beginning of the development of the Supreme Court’s section 1983 jurisprudence. The certiorari petitions and briefs in these cases and the oral argument in Monroe also articulate this tension. Finally, the very different political and social contexts in which Tenney and Monroe were decided illuminate the decisions themselves.
The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, provides that prevailing plaintiffs in § 1983 and other civil rights cases (excluding prisoners who are separately covered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995) are ordinarily entitled to a reasonable attorney’s fee unless special circumstances render such an award unjust. So the threshold question is whether the plaintiff has prevailed.
Under § 1988, it has long been clear that a plaintiff who recovers damages or obtains meaningful injunctive relief is a prevailing plaintiff. See §§ 10:4-10:11 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2012)(CIVLIBLIT on Westlaw). But every so often federal courts need to be reminded of the obvious.
Lefemine v. Wideman, 81 U.S.L.W. 4005 (11-5-2012)(per curiam)
In this case, the Fourth Circuit held (PDF) that “a plaintiff who secured a permanent injunction but no monetary damages was not a ‘prevailing party’ under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and so could not receive fees.” Reversing (PDF), the Supreme Court declared: “That was error [b]ecause the injunction ordered the defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited the plaintiff.”
The plaintiff, an anti-abortion demonstrator who displayed signs with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, sued county law enforcement officers under § 1983 and the First Amendment for nominal damages and declaratory and injunctive relief in connection with past and planned future demonstrations. The district court found that the defendants had previously violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The district court also permanently enjoined the defendants from engaging in content-based discrimination based on the signs with the pictures. But the district court denied nominal damages on the ground that the defendants were protected by qualified immunity. The district court further denied the plaintiff attorney’s fees based on “the totality of the facts,” and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that the injunction did not alter the relationship between the parties, as required for prevailing party status. The plaintiff sought certiorari in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the Fourth Circuit’s judgment and remanded, all without merits briefs and oral argument. According to the Court’s per curiam opinion, the plaintiff was clearly a prevailing party because he wanted to conduct demonstrations with signs that the defendants had told him he could not carry. He had sued in order to protect himself from the defendants’ threats against him, and he was successful. “[T]hat ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties’ relationship. … [A]fter the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner.”
Lefemine is an easy case. You have to wonder what the Fourth Circuit was thinking.
NOTE: THE BLOG IS ON BREAK UNTIL THE THIRD WEEK OF JANUARY, 2013, WHEN THE NEW SEMESTER BEGINS. ENJOY THE HOLIDAYS.
This is the third in the series and it addresses three myths about the Supreme Court with a minimum of legal jargon.
The First Myth. The Supreme Court’s primary function is to do justice.
Reality. The Supreme Court’s primary function is to interpret the Constitution and federal statutes. These interpretations become the supreme law of the land. The Court’s function is not necessarily to do justice in individual cases.
Of course, there are times when interpretations of particular constitutional provisions are considered by many to be just. For example, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits racial and other kinds of discrimination by government, is considered to be a just constitutional provision because it is based on the concept of equality.
Another example is the due process clause and its application in criminal cases. Due process has been interpreted to include concepts of justice and fairness so as to protect the rights of criminal defendants to an unbiased court, to confrontation and cross-examination, to be free from self-incrimination, to an attorney, and so on.
What is most important to remember, though, is that Supreme Court decisions are not necessarily just or moral. A Supreme Court decision can uphold an unjust federal or state law as constitutional. For example, the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson unfortunately upheld separate but equal in the racial setting at the end of the 19th century.
On the other hand, a Supreme Court decision can rule that a wise and just federal or state law is unconstitutional. For example, the Supreme Court struck down the Violence Against Women Act in United States v. Morrison at the beginning of this century. Read the rest of this entry »