The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School defines qualified immunity as an instrument that “protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.” Specifically, qualified immunity does not solely preclude a defendant from having to provide monetary compensation for an action. Rather, qualified immunity protects the defendant from having to go to trial at all. In determining whether a qualified immunity argument applies, “courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights.”
This legal protection that has existed in some manner for governmental employees since 1871 has increasingly become the subject of robust debate, with the primary focus of argument centered on its use respective to the actions of law enforcement officials. This debate received renewed vigor in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020. Federal legislative proposals, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, were quickly offered.
Individuals such as Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) describe the tool as shielding “good police officers from bankruptcy while still subjecting individual bad actors to personal financial repercussions.” Others, such as Representative Justin Amash (L-MI), have championed legislation that “would have eliminated qualified immunity for all public officials,” according to the American Bar Association.
This deliberation guides students through a review of the contemporary arguments for and against the use of the legal tool. After a careful review of multiple perspectives, students will determine whether qualified immunity should remain in place or be eliminated.
Objectives and Outcomes
- Students will be able to describe key vocabulary terms and concepts associated with the debate surrounding the continued use of qualified immunity.
- Students will be able to identify and explain aspects of the qualified immunity debate including those of civil and Constitutional rights, criminal justice, and law enforcement.
- Students will be able to evaluate arguments relating to the continued use of qualified immunity and formulate an opinion on this question.