Camreta v. Greene: New Supreme Court Decision on Qualified Immunity and Appellate Jurisdiction
I blogged on February 16, 2011, about the Supreme Court‘s grant of certiorari in Camreta v. Greene (PDF), a case from the Ninth Circuit raising not only Fourth Amendment issues but also questions related to the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction over the petition for certiorari of individual defendants who had prevailed in the Ninth Circuit on qualified immunity but had lost on the Fourth Amendment merits.
In that post I also discussed the potential implications of Camreta for the appellate jurisdiction of Circuit Courts of Appeals asked to review district court decisions finding constitutional violations by individual defendants but conferring qualified immunity on them.
Readers should consult the prior post for background on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Camreta v. Greene, 131 S. Ct. – (2011), vacating in part, Greene v. Camreta, 588 F.3d 1011 (9th Cir. 2009), which is the subject of this post.
Camreta v. Greene
On May 26, 2011, the Supreme Court handed down Camreta v. Greene, which involved the question whether the Fourth Amendment was violated in connection with the temporary seizure and interview in a public school of a child who authorities suspected was being sexually assaulted by her father. Here, the district court ruled that the individual defendants did not violate the child’s Fourth Amendment rights but, even if they did, they were protected by qualified immunity. On plaintiff’s appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed on qualified immunity but also found, contrary to the district court, that the individual defendants violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. In so doing, the Ninth Circuit made new Fourth Amendment law.
The individual defendants thereafter petitioned for certiorari on the Fourth Amendment issue, which was granted by the Supreme Court. The plaintiff’s brief to the Court addressed the important Fourth Amendment merits, as did the individual defendants’ brief and a number of amici briefs. But the plaintiff also argued that the Court did not have appellate jurisdiction because (1) the defendants had prevailed in the Ninth Circuit; (2) the determination by the Ninth Circuit that the individual defendants violated the Fourth Amendment was not part of its judgment; and (3) the case between the plaintiff and the individual defendants was moot.
In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision in part and remanded. The Court first determined that it could review the Ninth Circuit’s decision under the relevant federal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1254(1), which conferred power on it to grant certiorari “upon the petition of any party,” which included petitions brought by prevailing litigants in the court below, not only losing litigants. Next, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the petition submitted by the prevailing defendants did not present an Article III case or controversy. The defendants had a personal stake in the case because the Ninth Circuit had ruled that the defendants violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights and this judgment had a prospective effect on the parties: these defendants, and other defendants in this situation, either have to change the way they perform their jobs or risk future damages liability. Similarly, in most such cases plaintiffs will ordinarily retain a stake in the outcome (although, as it turned out here, the plaintiff did not retain a personal stake).
In addition, sound judicial policy warranted Supreme Court review here because the Ninth Circuit’s Fourth Amendment ruling was not mere dictum but rather one that had “a significant future effect on the conduct of public officials—both the prevailing parties and their co-workers—and the policies of the government units to which they belong.” Indeed, this ruling was intended to establish clearly settled Fourth Amendment law. These considerations, together with the “features of the qualified immunity world and why they came to be … support bending our usual rule to permit consideration of immunized officials’ petitions.” Otherwise, the defendants will either have to be governed by a Fourth Amendment ruling they cannot contest in the Supreme Court or defy the ruling and risk damages.
Significantly, the Court then went on to emphasize that in Camreta it was addressing only its own authority to review such cases, and not that of Circuit Courts of Appeals. In this case, after all, the Ninth Circuit had reviewed the losing plaintiff’s appeal. “We therefore need not and do not decide if an appellate court, too, can entertain an appeal from a party who has prevailed on immunity grounds.” In a potentially important footnote 7, the Court observed that different considerations may apply in such cases, particularly since district court decisions, which are not binding precedent, did not necessarily settle constitutional law. The Court also noted that its decision about reviewability dealt only with what it could review, not with what it would necessarily review.
Nevertheless, after determining that the immunized defendants’ case was properly before the Court even though the defendants had prevailed in the Ninth Circuit, the Court concluded that the case was moot. This was not because of the defendants, who retained a personal stake in it, but because the plaintiff no longer did. She had moved to another state and had no intention of relocating to Oregon (where the events occurred). In addition, she was almost 18 years old and would therefore not face “the slightest possibility of being seized in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction as part of a child abuse investigation.” While the plaintiff argued that she did indeed have a personal stake because of a municipal liability claim (dismissed by the district court and not appealed) she was seeking to reinstate, “we do not think [plaintiff’s] dismissed claim against a different defendant involving a separate legal theory can save this case from mootness.”
Consequently, the Court vacated the part of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion that addressed the Fourth Amendment issue (but not the qualified immunity part) and remanded.
Justice Scalia concurred. He pointed out only that the approach suggested by Justice Kennedy in his dissent—“to end the extraordinary practice of ruling upon constitutional questions unnecessarily when the defendant possesses qualified immunity”– had not been advocated by any of the parties. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer, concurred in the judgment. She argued that because the case was moot, the Court should not have discussed the question whether the prevailing defendants in Camreta should be able to obtain review of the Ninth Circuit’s Fourth Amendment ruling.
Justice Kennedy, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented. He agreed that clarification of this qualified immunity-related appealability issue was required. Nevertheless: “In my view … the correct solution is not to override jurisdictional rules that are basic to the functioning of the Court and to the necessity of avoiding advisory opinions [under Article III]. Dictum, though not precedent, may have its utility; but it ought not to be treated as a judgment standing on its own.”
1. The Court emphasized that its decision about appealability by immunized defendants governed only Supreme Court review, and not review of a district court’s decision by a court of appeals. Indeed, as mentioned, the Court’s footnote 7 indicated that Camreta’s reasoning was not necessarily applicable because district court decisions, unlike court of appeals decisions, did not create settled constitutional law.
Perhaps there would not have been five justices in the majority if this footnote had not been added: Justices Kennedy and Thomas would surely hold that district court decisions immunizing § 1983 defendants are not appealable to Circuit Courts of Appeals, and other justices in the Camreta majority might agree.
2. The Court’s vacating of the Ninth Circuit’s Fourth Amendment ruling for the plaintiff on grounds of mootness, but not its qualified immunity ruling in favor of the defendants, allowed the Court to avoid the difficult Fourth Amendment merits, at least for the time being. The result, of course, is that the relevant Fourth Amendment law remains unsettled in the Ninth Circuit and in the Supreme Court.
3. Finally, observe a possible irony in Camreta. Technically speaking, the Court’s conclusion that it did not have jurisdiction to review because the case was moot suggests that its discussion of appealability was advisory in nature. Only Justices Sotomayor and Justice Breyer made this point in their opinion concurring in the judgment. Advisory or not, Camreta clearly declares that immunized defendants who prevail may seek review in the Supreme Court.