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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Botching jurisdiction and merits, Ex. No. 613

Here is an awful jurisdiction/merits decision from the Fifth Circuit, involving the treatment of state action/under color in a § 1983 action. (H/T: Jack Preis).

A public-school educational aide sues a contract sheriff's deputy assigned to the school, claiming excessive force from the deputy punching him. The district court denies qualified immunity, while noting in passing some doubt about state action but that the defendant conceded the issue. The deputy appeals the Q/I denial under the collateral order doctrine. The Fifth Circuit remands, on the ground that by failing to determine action under color, the district court failed to establish its subject matter jurisdiction before ruling on the merits.

This is many shades of wrong. State action/action under color is an element of a § 1983 action and has nothing to do with the court's subject matter jurisdiction. This is true as a logical matter--merits ask who can sue whom and for what conduct, which is what state action determines in a constitutional case (whether this defendant can be sued for this conduct because it was under color). But it is especially true after Arbaugh and Morrison, which labels as merits issues those affecting the "reach" of a law, meaning what the law "prohibits"--what conduct (under color or not under color) can form the basis for liability in a § 1983 constitutional claim. It has nothing to do with subject-matter jurisdiction, which is established because federal law "creates" the rights plaintiff is asserting (Fourth Amendment) and his right of action (§ 1983).

The court may have found itself bound by a 1980 circuit precedent saying state action was required to "invoke the district court's jurisdiction." But that case (both the majority and dissent) uses the term jurisdiction in the thoughtless way the Court (particularly Justice Ginsburg) has tried to rein in the past twenty years. And it is inconsistent with how Morrison and Arbaugh framed the definition of merits issues. A Third Circuit panel was willing to overrule circuit precedent that could not stand in light of those recent cases. Perhaps this panel was unwilling to do the same. But then perhaps tee this for en banc review.

One other note: This decision is a stew of bad Fed Courts doctrine. The only reason the court was in position to consider the issue at this point is the immediate appealability of qualified-immunity denials, which some have argued contribute to the over-protection of police. Immediate review is designed to speed litigation. Instead, the court avoided immunity to create a new round of district-court (and probably appellate) litigation of an issue that should not have been before the court of appeals.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 2, 2020 at 04:24 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

Comments

Nice thoughts. I'd say "rein in" rather than "reign in," though.

Posted by: Anonymous | Dec 2, 2020 4:28:55 PM

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