Thursday, June 2, 2011
Last week’s Supreme Court decision in Camreta v. Greene (09-1454) involved a section 1983 action for damages based on alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment in the interview of a nine-year-old elementary-school student by state officials without a warrant or parental consent. The Ninth Circuit held that the officials violated the Fourth Amendment but were entitled to qualified immunity “because the constitutional right at issue was not clearly established under existing law.” [Slip Op. 2]
What makes the case particularly interesting from a Federal Courts standpoint is that the officials (who ultimately won in the Ninth Circuit on qualified immunity grounds) sought certiorari to challenge the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. So the first question the Court had to address was: “may government officials who prevail on grounds of qualified immunity obtain our review of a court of appeals’ decision that their conduct violated the Constitution?” [Slip Op. 2] The answer: yes, according to the majority opinion authored by Justice Kagan and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Ginsburg and Alito. (One commentator described it as an “interesting lineup.”)
Justice Kagan first rejects the argument that the officials lack standing under Article III [Slip Op. 6-7]:
Th[e] Article III standard often will be met when immunized officials seek to challenge a ruling that their conduct violated the Constitution. That is not because a court has made a retrospective judgment about the lawfulness of the officials’ behavior, for that judgment is unaccompanied by any personal liability. Rather, it is because the judgment may have prospective effect on the parties. The court in such a case says: “Although this official is immune from damages today, what he did violates the Constitution and he or anyone else who does that thing again will be personally liable.” If the official regularly engages in that conduct as part of his job (as Camreta does), he suffers injury caused by the adverse constitutional ruling. So long as it continues in effect, he must either change the way he performs his duties or risk a meritorious damages action. Only by overturning the ruling on appeal can the official gain clearance to engage in the conduct in the future. He thus can demonstrate, as we demand, injury, causation, and redressability.
She then rejects the argument that the appeal should be disallowed for prudential reasons. Although she recognizes that the Court has “generally declined to consider cases at the request of a prevailing party,” and that “[o]ur resources are not well spent superintending each word a lower court utters en route to a final judgment in the petitioning party’s favor,” she concludes that qualified immunity cases are “in a special category when it comes to this Court’s review of appeals brought by winners.” [Slip Op. 8]
The constitutional determinations that prevailing parties ask us to consider in these cases are not mere dicta or statements in opinions. They are rulings that have a significant future effect on the conduct of public officials—both the prevailing parties and their co-workers—and the policies of the government units to which they belong. And more: they are rulings self-consciously designed to produce this effect, by establishing controlling law and preventing invocations of immunity in later cases. And still more: they are rulings designed this way with this Court’s permission, to promote clarity—and observance—of constitutional rules. [Slip Op. 8-9 (citations omitted)].
Justice Kagan clarifies that the Court’s conclusion “addresses only our own authority to review cases in this procedural posture. The Ninth Circuit had no occasion to consider whether it could hear an appeal from an immunized official: In that court, after all, S. G. [the plaintiff—not to be confused with the Solicitor-General] appealed the judgment in the officials’ favor. We therefore need not and do not decide if an appellate court, too, can entertain an appeal from a party who has prevailed on immunity grounds.” [Slip Op. 13]
Ultimately, however, the Court does not reach the merits of the Ninth Circuit’s Fourth Amendment holding, finding “a separate jurisdictional problem . . . . This case, we conclude, is moot.” [Slip Op. 14]. As Justice Kagan explains, S. G. “can no longer claim the plaintiff’s usual stake in preserving the court’s holding because she is no longer in need of any protection from the challenged practice.” [Slip Op. 15]
After we granted certiorari, we discovered that S. G. has moved to Florida, and has no intention of relocating back to Oregon. What is more, S. G. is now only months away from her 18th birthday—and, presumably, from her high school graduation. S. G. therefore cannot be affected by the Court of Appeals’ ruling; she faces not the slightest possibility of being seized in a school in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction as part of a child abuse investigation. [Slip Op. 15]
Having concluded that the case is moot, Justice Kagan noted that the Court’s “‘established’ (though not exceptionless) practice in this situation is to vacate the judgment below. See Munsingwear, 340 U. S., at 39.” [Slip Op. 16]
In this case, the happenstance of S. G.’s moving across country and becoming an adult has deprived Camreta of his appeal rights. Mootness has frustrated his ability to challenge the Court of Appeals’ ruling that he must obtain a warrant before interviewing a suspected child abuse victim at school. We therefore vacate the part of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion that addressed that issue . . . . [Slip Op. 18]
As for the other opinions in the case, Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) writes a concurring opinion. She agrees with the majority “that this case is moot and that vacatur is the appropriate disposition.” In light of that conclusion, Justice Sotomayor would not have reached “the question whether Camreta, as a prevailing party, can obtain our review of the Ninth Circuit’s constitutional ruling.”
Justice Kennedy, joined by Justice Thomas, writes a dissenting opinion arguing that Camreta lacked standing to seek Supreme Court review. The opinion begins:
Today’s decision results from what is emerging as a rather troubling consequence from the reasoning of our recent qualified immunity cases. The Court is correct to note the problem presented when, on the one hand, its precedents permit or invite courts to rule on the merits of a constitutional claim even when qualified immunity disposes of the matter; and, on the other hand, jurisdictional principles prevent us from reviewing those invited rulings. It does seem that clarification is required. In my view, however, the correct solution is not to override jurisdictional rules that are basic to the functioning of the Court and to the necessity of avoiding advisory opinions. Dictum, though not precedent, may have its utility; but it ought not to be treated as a judgment standing on its own. [Dissenting Op. 1]
He writes later [Dissenting Op. 11-12 (citations omitted)]:
The Court’s analysis appears to rest on the premise that the reasoning of the decision below in itself causes Camreta injury. Until today, however, precedential reasoning of general applicability divorced from a particular adverse judgment was not thought to yield standing to appeal. . . .
Camreta’s asserted injury is caused not by the Court of Appeals or by respondent but rather by the independent action of some third party not before the court—that is, by the still-unidentified private plaintiffs whose lawsuits Camreta hopes to avoid. This circumstance distinguishes the present case from requests for declaratory or injunctive relief filed against officeholders who threaten legal enforcement. An inert rule of law does not cause particular, concrete injury; only the specific threat of its enforcement can do so. . . . Without an adverse judgment from which to appeal, Camreta has in effect filed a new declaratory judgment action in this Court against the Court of Appeals. This is no more consistent with Article III than filing a declaratory judgment action against this Court for its issuance of an adverse precedent or against Congress in response to its enactment of an unconstitutional law.
Justice Kennedy concludes by suggesting that “the Court might find it necessary to reconsider its special permission that the Courts of Appeals may issue unnecessary merits determinations in qualified immunity cases with binding precedential effect.” [Dissenting Op. 13] On this point Justice Scalia expresses some sympathy, even though he joins Justice Kagan’s majority opinion. He writes in a brief concurring opinion: "I join the Court’s opinion, which reasonably applies our precedents, strange though they may be. The alternative solution, as JUSTICE KENNEDY suggests, is to end the extraordinary practice of ruling upon constitutional questions unnecessarily when the defendant possesses qualified immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194 (2001). The parties have not asked us to adopt that approach, but I would be willing to consider it in an appropriate case."