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Constitutional Remedies: Reconciling Official Immunity with the Vindication of Rights

46 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2015  

Michael Lewis Wells

University of Georgia School of Law

Date Written: March 12, 2015

Abstract

A great deal of scholarly attention is devoted to constitutional rights and comparatively little to remedies for their violation. Yet rights without remedies are not worth much, and remedial law does not always facilitate the enforcement of rights, even of constitutional rights. This Article discusses an especially challenging remedial context: suits seeking damages for constitutional wrongs that occurred in the past, that are unlikely to recur, and hence that cannot be remedied by forward-looking injunctive or declaratory relief. Typical fact patterns include charges that the police, prison guards, school administrators, or other officials have engaged in illegal searches and seizures, or fired people on account of protected speech, or deprived them of liberty or property without due process of law, or discriminated against them in violation of equal protection. Because these backward-looking suits bear some resemblance to ordinary tort law, the doctrine is often called “constitutional tort.”

This Article examines a well-settled and routine — but destructive and quite unnecessary — consequence of the interplay between the liability rule and the official immunity doctrine. Consider two plaintiffs, Alice and Bob, each of whom sues for damages under § 1983. Suppose that both plaintiffs lose, but for different reasons. Alice establishes a violation of her constitutional rights, but fails because the defendant successfully asserts official immunity. Bob cannot show that his rights were violated in the first place. Despite the difference between their cases, current Supreme Court doctrine directs that Alice and Bob be treated the same. Both go away empty-handed. Under the Court’s approach, the competing goals behind liability and immunity are balanced in the following way: On the one hand, the aim of constitutional tort law is to compensate the plaintiff and to deter violations of rights. But on the other side of the balance, official immunity carries enough weight to override the compensation and deterrence goals. Thus, the official’s successful immunity defense carries the same force as a successful defense on the merits. Both result in total victory for the defense.

In this Article, I argue for a different conception of constitutional tort law, in which it is recognized that Alice’s case differs fundamentally from Bob’s. The point is not to question official immunity, a doctrine that has broad support from the Supreme Court. My project is to reconcile official immunity with Alice’s legitimate claim for a remedy.

Keywords: constitutional tort, § 1983, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, qualified immunity, Camreta v. Greene, Pearson v. Callahan, civil recourse, official immunity, constitutional rights,

JEL Classification: K13, K19

Suggested Citation

Wells, Michael Lewis, Constitutional Remedies: Reconciling Official Immunity with the Vindication of Rights (March 12, 2015). St. John's Law Review, Forthcoming; UGA Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2015-5. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2577483

Michael Wells (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States

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