This past October 4 began the Supreme Court’s 2021 term and the first two opinions issued in the new term focused on qualified immunity.
It was a fitting opening because a qualified immunity case, Taylor v. Riojas, was among the initial opinions rendered by the court during its 2020 term (October 5, 2020 – October 3, 2021) and another, Lombardo v. St. Louis, was among its final opinions before the 2021 summer recess. In between these October starts were three Fourth Amendment cases.
The fact that there were several qualified immunity cases before the court over the past 14 months is significant for two reasons. The first is that since taking the helm as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005, John Roberts has presided over more cases focusing on qualified immunity than any other Chief Justice in the court’s history. During his tenure, the Supreme Court has molded existing jurisprudence in this area to expand the original contours of qualified immunity protection.
Qualified immunity has developed to a point wherein constitutional claims against a police officer are difficult, although not impossible, to sustain.
The second reason is tied into the summer of 2020 protests across the United States wherein the protection offered by qualified immunity was one among many grievances lodged against police in the United States. Demands that qualified immunity be removed as a protection from civil lawsuits against officers were heard in every corner of protest and reiterated by many politicians… Several state legislatures went so far as to eliminate qualified immunity as a defense to actions initiated in state courts.
However, the Supreme Court remained moored to its prior jurisprudence in this area.