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November 2, 2020

No new cert grants from SCOTUS, but order lists includes interesting per curiam reversals including one on prison conditions and qualified immunity

This morning's Supreme Court order list starts by noting that "Justice Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of the motions or petitions appearing on this Order List." That fact may in part explain why the Court did not grant certiorari in any cases. But the order list is still an interesting read because it included two per curiam opinions, in McKesson v. Doe and Taylor v. Riojas, summarily reversing lower court opinion to order further proceedings in the Fifth Circuit. 

The fed courts nerd in me really likes Mckesson decision because it orders the Fifth Circuit to certify a fascinating questions of Louisiana tort law to the Louisiana Supreme Court in an effort to potentially avoid having to resolve a challenging First Amendment question.  But the Taylor decision gets to the issue of prison conditions and qualified immunity because "Petitioner Trent Taylor is an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice [who alleged] that, for six full days in September 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells."  Here is how SCOTUS kept his lawsuit going:

The Fifth Circuit erred in granting the officers qualified immunity on this basis.  “Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.”  Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam).  But 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.  See Hope, 536 U.S., at 741 (explaining that “‘a general constitutional rule already identified in the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific conduct in question’” (quoting United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259, 271 (1997))); 536 U.S., at 745 (holding that “[t]he obvious cruelty inherent” in putting inmates in certain wantonly “degrading and dangerous” situations provides officers “with some notice that their alleged conduct violate[s]” the Eighth Amendment).  The Fifth Circuit identified no evidence that the conditions of Taylor’s confinement were compelled by necessity or exigency.  Nor does the summary-judgment record reveal any reason to suspect that the conditions of Taylor’s confinement could not have been mitigated, either in degree or duration.  And although an officer-by-officer analysis will be necessary on remand, the record suggests that at least some officers involved in Taylor’s ordeal were deliberately indifferent to the conditions of his cells.

Notably, only Justice Thomas dissented from the Taylor ruling in favor of the prisoner in Taylor, although Justice Alito wrote an extended "concurring in the judgment" statement to explain why he thoughts the "petition [was] ill-suited for review."

November 2, 2020 at 09:54 AM | Permalink

Comments

Given the number of times that we have seen per curiam opinions reversing the denial of qualified immunity, how can a justice argue with a straight face that the court should not act to reverse the grant of qualified immunity? Particularly, when, as Justice Alito comments, the decision of the Fifth Circuit is apparently based on a misreading of a Supreme Court opinion (or more likely several Supreme Court opinions which have narrowly read the "clearly established" part of the test for when qualified immunity is not available).

Posted by: tmm | Nov 2, 2020 2:38:07 PM

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