Saturday, August 22, 2020
The recent district court slip opinion in Jamison v McClendon, __ F. Supp. 3d __, 2020 WL 4497723 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 4, 2020), granting a police officer qualified immunity in a section 1983 action generated a great deal of discussion and analysis in the legal writing community. United States District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi used plain language and established rhetorical tools to craft a beautifully-written and compelling order. In substance, the order is a much-needed indictment of how far the qualified immunity doctrine has crept beyond its beginnings. In form, the slip opinion has a great deal to teach us about writing.
If you have not read the Jamison Qualified Immunity Order, I highly recommend you take the time to read the slip opinion. The introduction alone provides lovely lessons in style while thoughtfully advocating for us to increase justice for all.
Judge Reeves began with a traditional “hook” or interest-catching device, listing activities plaintiff was not doing:
Clarence Jamison wasn’t jaywalking.1
He wasn’t outside playing with a toy gun.2
He didn’t look like a “suspicious person.”3
. . . .
Jamison, 2020 WL 4497723 at *1-2. Each footnote reminds us of the tragic case connected to the quoted facts, such as footnote 1 regarding jaywalking, which explains, “[t]hat was Michael Brown,” and footnote 2, noting, “[t]hat was 12-year-old Tamir Rice.” Id. at *1 nn. 1-15. The court included fifteen examples, using the technique of repetition to paint a vivid picture of the vastness of police misconduct in recent years. Id. at *1-2.
Next, Judge Reeves succinctly and persuasively summarized the facts, mixing complex and simple sentence structure while using straightforward language:
Clarence Jamison was a Black man driving a Mercedes convertible.
As he made his way home to South Carolina from a vacation in Arizona, Jamison was pulled over and subjected to one hundred and ten minutes of an armed police officer badgering him, pressuring him, lying to him, and then searching his car top-to-bottom for drugs.
Nothing was found. Jamison isn’t a drug courier. He’s a welder.
Unsatisfied, the officer then brought out a canine to sniff the car. The dog found nothing. So nearly two hours after it started, the officer left Jamison by the side of the road to put his car back together.
Id. at *2.
The court finished the introduction with a traditional roadmap. Judge Reeves explained the overall role of precedent and stare decisis, stating: “This Court is required to apply the law as stated by the Supreme Court. Under that law, the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life-altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity. The officer’s motion seeking as much is therefore granted.” Id. at *3. But the court continued, “let us not be fooled by legal jargon,” because “[i]mmunity is not exoneration.” Id. Finally, the court previewed the rest of the opinion by explaining how the case demonstrated “the harm done to the nation by this manufactured [qualified immunity] doctrine.” Quoting the Fourth Circuit, the court ended the introduction: “This has to stop.” Id. (quoting Estate of Jones v. City of Martinsburg, 961 F.3d 661, 673 (4th Cir. 2020)).
In the body of the slip opinion, Judge Reeves used history, respected scholarship, and case law to explain why reviewing courts should consider limiting the application of qualified immunity. In other words, the court specifically illustrated precedent and aptly connected the law to this case and to the broader rules of qualified immunity. Then, ending the slip opinion with a specific call to action, Judge Reeves charged us: “Let us waste no time in righting this wrong.” Id. at *29. At least one court has already cited the slip opinion. See Peterson v. Martinez, 2020 WL 4673953 *5 n. 5 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 12, 2020) (“The reader is referred to the excellent opinion of the Hon. Carlton W. Reeves in Jamison v. McClendon . . . describing the unhappy development of qualified immunity jurisprudence.”).
Commentators’ opinions differ on whether the Jamison court should have found the underlying facts here outside the scope of qualified immunity. But the clear tone, repetition, common sense language, and strong use of authority make the order an especially nice example of persuasive writing.