Ethics And Common Sense Win Out Over Law: SCOTUS Weakens “Qualified Immunity” [Updated]

The one constant recommendation by critics of police brutality and those trying to find ways to mitigate the problem without, you know, rioting, looting and burning every time a black man is killed by police is to eliminate or sharply curtail qualified immunity. Taylor v. Riojas, handed down in November by the Supreme Court in a 7-1 decision, might do just that.

A government officer sued for damages on a claim of violating the Constitution, such as violating an individual’s civil rights, must overcome the defendant’s claim of immunity. Judges (and Presidents) have absolute immunity for their conduct in the pursuit of their duties, no matter how outrageous or incompetent. Legislators cannot be sued for their decisions as lawmakers. Prosecutors cannot be sued for prosecuting. Other government officers, like police officers, have qualified immunity if they are sued for money damages for harming individuals in the course of their duties.

The Supreme Court has set up a tough standard for plaintiffs to meet in order to establish liability. Overcoming qualified immunity requires that the defendant officer acted in violation of law and Constitutional principles that any reasonable government official should know, and that the civil right allegedly breached has been established beyond question.

In a 2018 case, District of Columbia v. Wesby the Court stated:

“Existing law must have placed the constitutionality of the officer’s conduct ‘beyond debate.’ This demanding standard protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ To be clearly established, a legal principle must have a sufficiently clear foundation in then-existing precedent. The rule must be ‘settled law,’ which means it is dictated by ‘controlling authority’ or ‘a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority.’ It is not enough that the rule is suggested by then-existing precedent. The precedent must be clear enough that every reasonable official would interpret it to establish the particular rule the plaintiff seeks to apply.”

This extreme hurdle has proved nearly impossible to clear. From 1982 to 2020, the Court reviewed 30 qualified immunity cases. Plaintiffs prevailed in two.

Yet in the per curiam opinion issued last year (that means there are no signed majority opinion or concurring opinions) the Court signaled a major shift, and ruled that prison guards had no qualified immunity even though there was no precedent that would have alerted them that their conduct was illegal or unconstitutional.

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 11/3/2020: Anything Important Happening Today?

dewey headline

Today in election history, Harry Truman celebrated pulling off one of the greatest upsets in American history, defeating Republican Thomas Dewey and turning the two-time Presidential loser’s name into an eternal punchline, thanks to the Chicago Tribune’s over-eager headline based on early returns the night before. With Truman’s popularity at historic lows and all of the experts declaring the President defeated before that race began,  Dewey campaigned at a leisurely pace, though not exactly a Joe Biden pace. Truman, in contrast, campaigned furiously as the underdog.  Truman defeated Dewey by 114 electoral votes, creating the all-time template for surprise Presidential victories, and embedding the photograph above in American lore.

Even this couldn’t displace it…

Newsweek cover

1. Althouse gets defensive about “abstaining.” One of the bloggers most quoted at Ethics Alarms became triggered by a critical comment about her abstaining from voting and defended herself today, though not too well. Althouse addressed the commenter, named Slothrop, as well as the general attack on 2020 non-voters like her by Instapundit firebrand Sarah Hoyt. Ann countered in part,

[T]his method of using insults to push people to vote is ugly. Are they doing it because they think it’s effective? I don’t yield to bullies. …Slothrop appeals to my vanity as he insists that I be a good person — not cowardly and neglectful of duty. Hoyt denounces vanity and insists that I not get involved in any sense of my personal goodness… she portrays the abstainer as snooty — with her nose in the air, acting like she’s “too good for this.”

Slothrop is distinctly wrong when he says voting is a duty. No. It is not. Like speaking, like religion, like getting married, like having sexual relations, voting is a right, and a right entails the power to decline to exercise it. It is horrible to be forced to speak, forced to take on a religion, forced to get married, forced to have sex — these are loathsome impositions. 

Hoyt is wrong — in my case at least — to attribute a refusal to vote for Trump to taking offense at his personal style — his manners, his crassness. I happen to enjoy his personal style…

Trump has his style and I have mine. If it makes you want to stomp your foot, go ahead. You can keep “stomping your foot about” how cruelly neutral I am. You’re free. You’ve got your right and I’ve got mine. 

Verdict: Lame. Voting is a duty of citizenship, as long as the citizen is informed, as Althouse certainly is. Yes, there is a right not to do your duty, unless a law makes it mandatory. I’m shocked, or perhaps enlightened, that Althouse would excuse her refusal to make a tough choice to “style.” Let’s see, how many rationalizations on the list does that rattle, along with the rest of her self-defense? I’ve got at least eleven:

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Ethics Lunch, 9/24/2019: Big Hairy Men! Teen Rants! Legalized Theft! Insulting The Poor With Kindness!

 

Yum!

Or rather, “yecchhh!”

1.  Ben Carson doesn’t think women’s shelters should admit men identifying as women. Obviously, he must be destroyed. Has there ever been a tiny minority that has triggered so many gotchas and excessive controversies like trans citizens?

Let me stipulate that Ben Carson has no business being Secretary of HUD, as he is completely unqualified and possessed of narrow brilliance in an unrelated area and crippling dufus-ness in all others, so this goes in the “Stop Making Me Defend Ben Carson” files.

Nonetheless, the current outrage over remarks he made in a closed-door meeting with roughly 50 HUD staffers at the agency’s San Francisco office are contrived, and blatant virtue-signaling to the hyper-sensitive Democratic base.

Let me also stipulate that Carson is an idiot for not being able to figure out that in any group of San Francisco residents there would be several just looking for a “Ben Carson is an anti-trans bigot” smoking gun.

Carson wrote in an all-staff email that he

“…made reference to the fact that I had heard from many women’s groups about the difficulty they were having with women’s shelters because sometimes men would claim to be women, and that HUD’s policy required the shelter to accept—without question—the word of whoever came in, regardless of what their manifested physical characteristics appeared to be.This made many of the women feel unsafe, and one of the groups described a situation to me in which ‘big hairy men’ would come in and have to be accepted into the women’s shelter even though it made the women in the facility very uncomfortable,. My point was that we have to permit policies that take into consideration the rights of everybody, including those women.”

This was relayed to the media by a few enraged staffers as Carson referring to trans individuals as “big hairy men,” as well as representing insufficiently supportive sentiments towards the transgender community. “The sentiment conveyed was these were not women, and they should not be housed in single-sex shelters — like we shouldn’t force people to accept transgender people in this context because it makes other people uncomfortable,” one staffer told the Washington Post.

To the contrary, what Carson was referencing  is a legitimate concern. Having recently been served at McDonalds by someone who certainly appeared to be a big hairy man wearing a beard, a woman’s wig and a bra, I understand the problem, and it is a problem—not at McDonalds, but surely in a women’s shelter.  Because Carson acknowledged reality,  Julián Castro, a former HUD secretary and a 2020 Democratic candidate for President, said Carson’s comments “normalize violence” against transgender people. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats piled on.

2. Immunity again, bad judges again, KABOOM! again. Where do these judges come from?

The Fresno Police Department carried out a raid on Micah Jessop and Brittan Ashjian, who were suspected of operating illegal gambling machines, though no charges were ever brought. After the search, officers provided both men with a ledger stating that the police had seized $50,000. Jessop and Ashjian allege that the officers really took $151,380 in cash and $125,000 in rare coins, pocketing $226,380 in what was outright robbery.

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The Strange, Unethical Saga of Junius Puke

Junius Puke

This week seems to mark the end of a perfect storm of ethical misconduct that almost drowned a young student in legal persecution for the non-crime of exercising his First Amendment rights. An insufferable and humorless bully with a professorship collided with an irresponsible prosecutor wielding an unconstitutional law, and it has taken eight years to undo the carnage.

A man named Junius Peake was an economics professor at the University of Northern Colorado,  who due to his parody-inviting name and undoubtedly also the character traits that he was soon to display so prominently, found himself being lampooned in a student satire blog called “The Howling Pig.”  The editor-in-chief of the blog was facetiously identified in the newsletter as the obviously fictional “Junius Puke,” who was portrayed with an outrageous photograph of Professor Peake altered to include sunglasses, a different nose,  a Hitler-esque mustache, and, on occasion, Kiss make-up and a Gene Simmons tongue.  Junius Puke, with tongue. “Junius Puke” wrote prose like this:

“This will be a regular bitch sheet that will speak truth to power, obscenities to clergy, and advice to all the stoners sitting around watching Scooby Doo. This will be a forum for the pissed off and disenfranchised in Northern Colorado, basically everybody. I made it to where I am through hard work, luck, and connections, all without a college degree. Dissatisfaction with a cushy do-nothing ornamental position led me to form this subversive little paper. I don’t normally care much about the question of daycare since my kids are grown and other people’s children give me the willies.” Continue reading