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Monday, September 23, 2013

The post-hoc First Amendment

At some point in the future, I hope to write an article on the problems with enforcing First Amendment liberties through § 1983. One problem (not unique to free speech claims) is qualified immunity. Case in point is this recent Fourth Circuit decision involving sheriff's deputies in North Carolina allegedly fired for supporting the opposing sheriff candidate.

The case has drawn praise for recognizing that clicking "Like" on Facebook constitutes protected speech. And this certainly is a good thing from a court of appeals. Of course, the district court decision on this point reflected such a lack of understanding of how people can express themselves (quite apart from how technology works) that this was almost too easy. But lost in the celebration of a court getting technology right (for once) is that the deputies largely lost. The divided court held that the sheriff was entitled  to qualified immunity from damages for the firings. The judges wranged over the scope and meaning of a particular divided en banc decision from a few years earlier; for the the majority, their wrangling shows precisely why the right was not clearly established, on the old "if three federal judges can't agree on the state of the law, then how can we expect a layperson to understand?" rationale. So it all ends up looking like a giant advisory opinion. Especially since this looks like a case in which it was entirely unnecessary to reach the merits--an obvious dispute about the meaning of circuit precedent made it obvious this was not clearly established. So why bother with the merits?

Interestingly, the plaintiffs' claims for reinstatement survive; that is prospective/equitable relief, to which qualified immunity does not apply and to which for Ex Parte Young does. This raises an interesting question--what if the plaintiffs sought front pay in lieu of reinstatement? Lower courts have all held that this is not available, because it is monetary relief paid for out of the state treasury. But this seems like it would fall within the Eleventh Amendment's prospective compliance exception, which provides that there is no sovereign-immunity bar to the state paying (out of the treasury) the ordinary costs of complying with prospective relief. If the plaintiffs prevail, the state has to pay them the same amount of money either way--either for actually working or for the work they would have done were reinstatement a viable option. And the latter will be paid out for less time. It seems incoherent to label identical payments in identical amounts for identical purposes differently.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 23, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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Why isn't "the plaintiffs' claims for reinstatement survive" the answer to your question about why the court reached the merits?

Posted by: Adam | Sep 23, 2013 12:23:52 PM

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