Discussion: A Broad and Unnecessary Shield

In recent years, the once-obscure legal doctrine of qualified immunity has captured national attention. At the same time, as our data reveal, qualified immunity appeals have taken up a larger share of federal circuit court dockets. Because public discussion of the doctrine frequently focuses on notable cases of alleged police abuse, the debate often pits criminal justice reformers against law enforcement champions. Yet, digging more deeply into our data, we find that these conversations capture only a partial picture of qualified immunity litigation in federal circuit courts. Not only does the doctrine apply to a far wider array of government officials and conduct than is commonly understood; it also favors those officials and scuttles valid claims. Beyond these substantial downsides, our data, alongside research by others, suggest qualified immunity is a poor fit for achieving its proponents’ goals.