March 19, 2021

On February 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Brownback v. King, the first case in IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability to reach the high court. While the Justices sided with the government on an obscure issue of jurisdiction, handing it a technical win, they declined the government’s request to end James King’s fight for accountability. The case—and the most central issue for the purposes of our Project—will now continue in the lower courts.

James’ story began in 2014, when members of a state-federal task force misidentified James—an innocent college student—as a petty thief wanted for stealing liquor and empty soda cans. The plainclothes officers choked and beat James. After realizing he was not the man they were looking for, to cover their tracks, police charged James with several serious felonies, and a prosecutor took those charges to trial. A jury exonerated James on all counts.

Officers Nearly Beat Innocent College Student to Death—Then Claim Immunity from All Accountability

In 2016, James sued the officers and their employer, the United States. In the years since, James has fought to overcome a variety of special protections like qualified immunity. He succeeded, but before the accountability case could go to a jury, the government escalated its response. It asked the Supreme Court to create a new protection for the officers, arguing that any time someone sues the United States and its employees, the claims against one cancel out the claims against the other. With this opinion, the Supreme Court declined to adopt that new protection.

Instead, the Court focused its analysis on an abstract jurisdictional issue, on which it handed the government a technical victory. But, through a footnote, the opinion denied the government the substance of what it wanted: an end to the case. Instead, the Court cleared away the complicated issues of jurisdiction and remanded the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to address the central issue in this case: whether you can sue the United States and its employees in the same lawsuit without one claim cancelling out the other. 

In a powerful concurrence, Justice Sotomayor highlighted the importance of the issue and supported many of the arguments IJ made, noting that “King raises a number of reasons to doubt [the government’s] reading” of the law, especially because the government’s reading of the statute goes against centuries of common law practice in this country. 

The bottom line is that James’ case continues and so does the fight for accountability. We will now return to the 6th Circuit with an opportunity to set straight a crucial area of constitutional law—and to hand a victory to James and others seeking only to vindicate their constitutional rights.

Patrick Jaicomo is an IJ attorney.

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