John Kramer
John Kramer · February 25, 2021

Arlington, Virginia—Today, in a case involving a college student beaten by law enforcement officers in an unprovoked attack, the U.S. Supreme Court refused the government’s request to create a new kind of immunity for the officers.  Instead, it sent the case against the officers back to a federal appeals court to decide whether claims brought in the student’s lawsuit should be dismissed simply because a government employee is the defendant.

Institute for Justice Attorney Patrick Jaicomo, who argued the case before the Court, said, “Although today’s decision appears at first glance to deal a blow to constitutional accountability, in reality, the Supreme Court teed up the central issue in this case for the federal appeals court to reconsider.  It is asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to weigh in on whether centuries of common-law practice should apply—or be abandoned—when the issue involves constitutional violations committed by federal police.  When it does, our client James King, the innocent college student the officers choked and beat in 2014, will be able to persuasively argue why he deserves a day in court.  And that’s what we have been fighting for since day one.  If Americans must follow the law, government employees must follow the Constitution.”

In footnote 4 of the opinion, the Court notes, “King argues . . . that the judgment bar does not apply to a dismissal of claims raised in the same lawsuit because common-law claim preclusion ordinarily ‘is not appropriate within a single lawsuit.’”  But the Court declined to decide that issue at this stage of the case: “We leave it to the Sixth Circuit to address King’s . . . arguments on remand.”

IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell, co-counsel in the case, said, “When James King’s case goes back down to the federal appeals court, all this discussion about the merits of the case will no longer apply.  The only question before the court will be whether claims brought in the same lawsuit should cancel each other out simply because a government employee is the defendant.  That should never have been the case, but that is exactly what the government argued, and it seems the justices were rightly not convinced.”

Today’s opinion holds that when a court issues a judgment in one case, that judgment can be used to bar future legal actions.  But in King’s case, that “judgment bar” doesn’t apply to block multiple claims brought in the same case.  So, when King sued the government and the individual officers in separate claims as part of a single lawsuit, just because his case against the government didn’t proceed doesn’t mean his case against the officers is barred from being considered by the court.

In a powerful concurrence, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor highlighted many of the arguments made by King’s attorneys, noting that “while many lower courts have uncritically held that the [Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)’s] judgment bar applies to claims brought in the same action, there are reasons to question that conclusion.  This issue merits far closer consideration than it has thus far received.”  Further, she notes, “King raises a number of reasons to doubt [the government’s] reading” of the FTCA.

The Sixth Circuit will now decide whether the type of immunity the government requests ever applies when constitutional claims and FTCA claims are brought in a single lawsuit.

“When we go back to the 6th Circuit, this should not be a close call,” said Jaicomo.  “As Justice Sotomayor said in her concurrence, the government argues for a significant departure from the normal operation of common law, and the 6th Circuit will now get the opportunity to make it absolutely clear.”

“When the 6th Circuit finally rules that claims brought in the same lawsuit do not cancel each other out simply because a government employee is the defendant, this will send a clear message to the rest of the courts of appeals that they should abandon the loophole they have been using for years to deny individuals like James King their day in court,” said Bidwell.

“I am  happy with the outcome,” said IJ client James King.  “The fight continues, and this time on our terms.  I’m looking forward to being back in court.  The officers who assaulted me are not above the law and neither is anyone else, simply by virtue of being employed by the government.”

The opinion released this morning is consistent with the questions Justices asked during the oral argument, where the focus was on whether it makes sense to overturn centuries of common law and deny accountability by creating a special loophole for the government.

“We look forward to going back to the 6th Circuit and making it harder for government workers to violate the Constitution without consequences,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock.  “This was the Institute for Justice’s first case we argued before the High Court as part of our Project on Immunity and Accountability, but it won’t be the last.  Just as IJ spotlighted and curtailed government abuse in the form of eminent domain for private gain and civil forfeiture, we will continue our work in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion until immunity doctrines are exposed and curtailed if not eliminated entirely.”

“Rights without remedies are not rights,” explained Patrick Jaicomo.  “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing King to continue his lawsuit gives power to the limits the Constitution places on government officials.”

The Institute for Justice’s Project on Immunity and Accountability seeks to hold government officials accountable when they violate individual rights like those of James King. As part of the Project, IJ will continue to fight against the many special protections that shield government officials from accountability.

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