ARLINGTON, Va.—Knowledge is power. Yet, the knowledge necessary to overcome qualified immunity in a civil rights lawsuit is extremely difficult to attain, giving an advantage to government officials over the individuals they have wronged, rigging the fight between individuals and government officials who violated their rights.
The Institute for Justice’s (IJ) new interactive civil rights tool —Constitutional GPA—reduces this power imbalance by arming plaintiffs and their lawyers with the knowledge they need to have a fighting chance against qualified immunity. This knowledge consists of cases establishing constitutional law in the U.S. Supreme Court and every federal court of appeals for five categories of constitutional rights violations. It can help overcome qualified immunity, which government officials invariably invoke as a defense when you sue them.
WATCH a video on how to use the site.
Created by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, qualified immunity protects those who knowingly violate the law and even those who do so with malice. All the official has to do is invoke qualified immunity as a defense and then the burden is the plaintiff’s to point the court to a case in the relevant federal circuit court or in the U.S. Supreme Court that is close enough on facts to have provided a reasonable official fair warning that his actions violated the Constitution.
“Clearly established law is an odd standard to be sure,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney with IJ. “Government officials as a rule don’t spend their time familiarizing themselves with the latest caselaw. But that’s the standard the Supreme Court chose to go with when it invented qualified immunity in 1982. For now, that’s the standard we have to live with, and we are trying to give people a fighting chance with the Constitutional GPA tool.”
“This interactive research tool provides people with a starting point to help overcome qualified immunity,” said Marie Miller, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “Finding caselaw to prove that a reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have known their conduct was unconstitutional is essential for overcoming the hurdle of qualified immunity. This tool has been very helpful in our own cases, and we are happy to share it with anyone working to protect constitutional rights.”
In addition to assisting individuals and their lawyers in their fight against the government, Constitutional GPA also grades states and federal circuits based on the strengths and weaknesses of their constitutional caselaw and their immunity doctrines.
“This study doesn’t fix what’s wrong with qualified immunity,” said Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “We are still determined to defeat qualified immunity so one day people who sue government officials don’t have to worry about this court-created obstacle. For now, this tool is at least something to provide transparency and help level the playing field.”
This study is a part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which in the last month launched cases in California, Minnesota, Ohio and New Mexico challenging immunity doctrines. The project is dedicated to the principle that if citizens are not above the law, then government officials are not above the Constitution.
Immunity and Accountability
Constitutional rights only exist if they can be enforced. But a confusing patchwork of immunity doctrines and special rules often means they cannot be. Chief among the doctrines that prevent constitutional accountability is qualified immunity,…