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Thursday, December 10, 2020

New Fed Courts cases from SCOTUS (Updated)

As the Court wrestles with absurd original-jurisdiction cases, some procedure decisions from SCOTUS today, with some interesting twists and background points.

Carney v. Adams involved a challenge to Delaware law controlling party affiliation for judges; a unanimous Court, per Justice Breyer, held the plaintiff lacked standing because he failed to show he was "able and ready" to do something to be injured by the challenged law. Bare testimony that he "would apply" for a judgeship but for the party limitations was insufficient to establish a particularized harm, especially when balanced against the sequence of events (he never applied for any judgeship, retired as an attorney, read a law review article about the invalidity of these party limits, unretired, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent, then filed the lawsuit about a week later). Basically, he got Lujaned--he did not have the judicial-application equivalent of a plane ticket. Justice Sotomayor concurred to comment on some issues that might arise on the merits of a future challenge to laws such as these.

Tanzin v. Tanvir, unanimously per Justice Thomas, held that federal officers could be sued for damages under RFRA; the action was brought against FBI agents who allegedly placed three Muslim men on the "No Fly List" when they refused to act as informants. A lot of discussion. RFRA provides an express cause of action against governments, which includes officials and other persons acting under color of law, terms which include personal-capacity claims against government employees. The Court uses § 1983 to establish background understanding for concepts such as under color and damages as a remedy for constitutional violations.

Qualified immunity lurked in the background in Tanvin in two interesting respects. First, the Court drops in a footnote that everyone agrees that the officers can assert qualified immunity, which pre-ordains what will happen in this action on remand (it will not be clearly established that placing someone on the List in retaliation for not spying on their neighbors violates religious freedom). I guess it makes sense as a policy matter that qualified immunity applies. But why does it work as a statutory matter. The logic of qualified immunity and § 1983 is that a qualified-immunity-type defense existed at common law in 1871 and was incorporated as background in § 1983 in the absence of a plain statement rejecting the defense. (The dissimilarity between modern QI and what existed at common law is the basis for Will Baude's criticisms). The logic of qualified immunity and Bivens is that Bivens is the federal counterpart to § 1983. But what is the source of qualified immunity to assume it was incorporated (again by silence) into RFRA? I guess the argument would be that RFRA displaced § 1983 and Bivens and was modeled after both, so any defense built into these was built and incorporated into the new statute. (Update: Doug Laycock confirms this, along with the belief that QI was a necessary concession to get a damages remedy in the statute. Thomas describes the scope of § 1983 at the time of RFRA as permitting "monetary recovery against officials who violated 'clearly established' federal law.").

Second, Thomas is the one Justice who expressed an interest in at least reconsidering QI. It thus is interesting that he incorporates into RFRA the broad understanding of under color to include suits against any official acting as an official in his personal capacity. One argument for broad QI (as Will discusses in his article) is as a counterweight to a broad conception of under color--Screws/Monroe were wrong, so QI corrects that imbalance without overruling those cases. But I wonder what Thomas' broad adoption of under color means for his views on QI.

United States v. Briggs unanimously held that certain rape prosecutions under the UCMJ were timely, an unfortunate loss for Steve. Justice Gorsuch concurred to express his continuing view that SCOTUS lacks jurisdiction to review decisions from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (an Article I Court).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 10, 2020 at 11:50 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

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