SCOTUS May Be Setting the Stage for a Challenge to Qualified Immunity
On November 2, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case Taylor v. Rojas. The petitioner in this case was Trent Taylor—an inmate in the Texas criminal justice system. Mr. Taylor alleges that in September of 2013 he was placed in a cell covered in human feces and left there for six days before being moved into a cell that was “freezing” for another four days. Mr. Taylor sued the corrections officers who were responsible for placing him in the cells, claiming that they violated his Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The corrections officers involved in this case argued that they cannot be held liable for violating Mr. Taylor's Eighth Amendment rights because they have qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that grants sweeping immunity to government officials who engage in egregious violation of rights. The district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the correction officers.
Mr. Taylor then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The court invalidated The Fifth Circuit Court’s decision, claiming that Mr. Taylor’s rights had been violated and that the corrections officers should not receive qualified immunity because “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.” The case was decided by a 7-to-1 vote with a sole dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas.
As Justice Samuel Alito points out in his concurring opinion, the United States Supreme Court typically avoids hearing cases where there is not an underlying question of how a doctrine or statute should be interpreted. This case did not involve a challenge to qualified immunity itself, but rather challenged the lower court’s application of the doctrine. Typically, the Supreme Court would avoid hearing cases of this type. However, the court decided to rule on this case. This leaves us with a large question: Why did the court feel it was necessary to weigh in on this case?
One possible explanation for their actions is that the court simply saw the facts of this case and decided that they were extreme enough to warrant an intervention. This seems unlikely considering the multitude of cases with similarly horrific fact patterns where the court has refused to grant cert. Such cases include incidents where officers shot a kid lying on the ground while aiming at a family dog, were accused of stealing $225,000, and told a police dog to attack a suspect on his knees with his hands behind his head. When you consider the fact that the court refused to rule on these cases, this interpretation of their actions in Taylor seems unlikely.
Another possible interpretation is that the court was attempting to fix a past mistake in the application of the doctrine. In the past, the court has ruled broadly on the question of qualified immunity. They have granted qualified immunity in many cases where it seems clear they should not have. This sends a message to the lower courts that they are to interpret qualified immunity broadly. It is possible that the court wished to fix this problem by giving an example where qualified immunity does not apply.
While both of these interpretations are possible, it seems more likely that the court is trying to set the stage for a challenge to the doctrine itself. The court recently granted cert in the case Brownback v. King. This case contains a direct challenge to the qualified immunity doctrine and has a horrendous fact pattern. If the court wants to reevaluate qualified immunity in a meaningful way, it would be helpful to have a more carefully defined standard for when it ought to be applied. Taylor might be the court’s attempt at clarifying this standard for this exact reason.
Whatever the reason for the court’s ruling might have been, Taylor got justice. Additionally, the fact that the court ruled against the state in this case should give us hope for future cases. Should they decide to rethink the qualified immunity doctrine this case would be a great place to start.