Arlington, Va.—This week, Central Specialties, Inc. (CSI), a family-owned road construction company represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), filed a reply in support of its petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up CSI’s case and make it clear: Government employees who “go rogue” and act outside of their job duties are not shielded from lawsuits brought against them by citizens seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights.
In July 2017, Jonathan Large, a highway engineer for Mahnomen County, Minnesota, violated CSI’s constitutional rights by pulling over two of its trucks and detaining CSI drivers for over three hours—despite having no authority to do so—while he tried to get law enforcement to come ticket them. Minnesota law does not empower highway engineers to act as police officers, so CSI took Large to court. There, Large claimed he could not be sued because, as a government official, he is protected by qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields government officials from being sued when they violate people’s constitutional rights. To get around qualified immunity and get their day in court, a plaintiff must show that the right the government official violated was “clearly established.” To be clearly established, that typically comes down to whether there is a previous case on record with similar facts—where the court decided the official’s actions were unconstitutional.
“What makes the CSI appeal so important is that it shows how perverse qualified immunity is; if a government official like Jonathan Large acts completely outside of his duties when he violates the Constitution, it is unlikely that there will be previous case law with similar facts, so they can’t be held to account for their actions,” said Anya Bidwell, an IJ attorney. “So government officials who don’t do their jobs get a greater degree of protection than those who do. That cannot be right, and it cannot be what the Supreme Court intended when it developed the doctrine of qualified immunity.”
Shockingly, that is exactly the result of a flawed decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and it is what CSI wants the Court to address by granting CSI’s petition to be heard.
“The Supreme Court has said that the purpose of qualified immunity is to give government officials ‘breathing room’ to do their jobs,” said IJ Attorney Betsy Sanz. “But what if they’re not doing their jobs at all, but instead are doing the jobs of others? They do not need ‘breathing room’ to do things they are not authorized to do, so they should not get qualified immunity. The Supreme Court should say so.”
“IJ is the leading advocate fighting for greater accountability among government officials and against blanket immunity for those who violate the constitutional rights of others,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice. “The lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the rules; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.”
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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, IJ’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205. More information on the case is available at: https://ij.org/case/minnesota-csi/.