Supreme Court won't hear cases on qualified immunity, which often shields police from lawsuits

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court won't re-examine a legal doctrine that often shields police from liability — and is very much in the news right now.

In an unsigned order released Monday, the court declined to hear cases that would force it to take another look at qualified immunity, despite justices on both ends of the ideological spectrum criticizing the legal doctrine in the past. Qualified immunity blocks law enforcement officers from facing lawsuits if they violate the Constitution unless their violation explicitly matches a "clearly established" violation in the past, and has become a big part of discussions about police reform in the U.S.

The Supreme Court created the concept of qualified immunity in a 1967 case in an attempt to protect officers who acted in "good faith" but violated the Constitution while working in an official capacity. Qualified immunity has since been expanded in subsequent Supreme Court cases, preventing victims of police brutality from suing officers, even over an unconstitutional act, unless their actions were "clearly established" to be unconstitutional beforehand.

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The concept has found both conservative and liberal critics, including on the Supreme Court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the most liberal justices, authored a dissent in a 2018 case that upheld qualified immunity, as did Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative, in 2017. Thomas dissented with Monday's motion to decline to hear the cases.

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Kathryn Krawczyk

Kathryn is a graduate of Syracuse University, with degrees in magazine journalism and information technology, along with hours to earn another degree after working at SU's independent paper The Daily Orange. She's currently recovering from a horse addiction while living in New York City, and likes to share her extremely dry sense of humor on Twitter.