IJ Earns Important Civil Rights Decision

December 1, 2008

Earlier this year, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set an important civil rights precedent when it held that government agencies may not escape liability when they interfere with fundamental rights especially when such agencies have no legal power to act. This decision will help protect the constitutional rights of all Americans from the actions of rogue government officials acting in areas where they have no authority.

At issue is a mural protesting St. Louis’ awful history of eminent domain abuse. Jim Roos and his non-profit housing organizations painted the sign on the side of a building located in an area designated as blighted by the city. His mural soon drew the attention of the city, which has authority under Missouri law to regulate signs, and the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), which does not. Both entities sought to force Roos to remove the mural, claiming that it was illegal.

Represented by the Institute for Justice, Jim fought back and sued both agencies in federal court under the federal civil rights laws, arguing that the efforts to suppress the mural violated the First Amendment. However, the district court dismissed Jim’s suit against the LCRA, concluding that because the agency had no authority to regulate signs, it could not be sued over its efforts to shut down this protest of its actions.

Jim appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously reversed the district court and reinstated Jim’s claims against the LCRA. The court held that the district court had missed the essence of the entire suit—that the LCRA’s “purported exercise of authority infringed on their constitutional rights” and ordered that the “case should proceed further in the litigation process.”

This decision affirms a fundamental principle of American law—the government can be held accountable when it interferes with constitutional rights, even when the government acts beyond its legal authority. This was the entire point of the post-Civil War federal civil rights acts, which sought to protect federal rights even when local governments took actions that were illegal or even criminal. The 8th Circuit’s decision will help protect the rights of citizens within its jurisdiction from government officials acting beyond the powers granted to them by the state legislature.

Jim’s case now returns to the district court, where his action against the city of St. Louis has been proceeding. With this victory in hand, we can now turn to the substance of Jim’s claims: vindicating Jim’s right to protest the abusive actions of government officials. Local officials in Missouri now understand, however, that their very lack of authority cannot save them from liability when they trample fundamental constitutional rights.

William R. Maurer is executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter.

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