IJ Clients Remain Resilient on the Long Road to Government Accountability
They say the wheels of justice grind slowly. Nowhere is this more true than in the upside-down world of court-created immunities. That’s why fighting for government accountability requires special resolve on the part of IJ clients. Just ask Sylvia Gonzalez and James King, whose cases are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sylvia’s case began in 2019, when a politically connected cadre of officials in the hamlet of Castle Hills, Texas, conspired to arrest the 72-year-old for challenging their grip on power. In retaliation for Sylvia’s work on a petition urging the replacement of the city manager, the manager’s friends—the mayor, police chief, and a local lawyer dubbed a “special detective”—spent months manufacturing a pretext to arrest and jail Sylvia.
When Sylvia sued the conspirators for violating the First Amendment, they claimed qualified immunity. A federal trial court in Texas rejected the claim, but government officials who have been denied immunity can immediately appeal. So the conspirators took their case to the Fifth Circuit, which reversed and granted them immunity. IJ and Sylvia are now asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
IJ client James King also knows all too well about immunity delays. In 2014, police working on a state-federal task force misidentified James as a petty criminal and unconstitutionally searched, seized, and beat him; onlookers called 911, worried James was being mugged. For the past nine years, James has been fighting through a thicket of immunities.
Like Sylvia, James first met with claims of qualified immunity. He lost his battle against the doctrine in the federal trial court, but the Sixth Circuit restored his case on appeal. Before James could go before a jury, however, the government asked the appeals court to apply a different immunity. When it declined, the Supreme Court heard James’ case in 2020, only to return it to the Sixth Circuit on the immunity issue. Recently, that court granted the government the alternative immunity it requested. So IJ and James are now asking the Supreme Court to hear the case again.
James’ and Sylvia’s cases highlight the unfairness that immunity doctrines introduce into the legal system. On top of the substantive problems immunities create, the process of litigating them adds literal years to lawsuits. The delay is even worse when you realize that all immunity plaintiffs are fighting for is a day in court—a chance to argue in front of a jury. So even if they convince the Supreme Court they should win their yearslong immunity battles, the wars are only beginning for James, Sylvia, and IJ. There are still years left to fight.
Yet Sylvia and James aren’t giving up, and neither are we. Thankfully, IJ has the means and ability to find dedicated plaintiffs and fight for them year after year. And by staying in the fight, we will help make it easier for more and more people to join us in demanding constitutional accountability.
Patrick Jaicomo is an IJ senior attorney.
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