Thursday, January 21, 2016
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week in Citizens in Charge v. Husted that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted enjoyed qualified immunity against a damages claim that arose out of his enforcement of Ohio's law that prohibits out-of-staters from circulating petitions within the state to propose new legislation and constitutional amendments.
The court granted immunity because it said that Ohio's law didn't clearly violate the Constitution. In support, it pointed to a circuit split on the question whether a state law that requires in-state residency to circulate a petition violates the First Amendment.
In so ruling, the court came close to saying that an official's enforcement of a state statute is per se reasonable, if no court has (yet) ruled the law unconstitutional--a result that puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of qualified immunity (and against plaintiffs who seek to recover damages for constitutional torts). The outer boundary is only when a law is "grossly and flagrantly unconstitutional." (The court gave as one example separate-but-equal racial discrimination.) The court explained:
So far as the parties' research has revealed and so far as our own research has uncovered, the Supreme Court has never denied qualified immunity to a public official who enforced a properly enacted statute that no court had invalidated. This indeed would seem to be the paradigmatic way of showing objectively reasonable conduct by a public official.
. . .
Any other approach would place risky pressures on public officials to second-guess legislative decisions. When faced with a statute of questionable validity, executive actors would find themselves forced to choose between applying the law (and subjecting themselves to monetary liability) or declining to do so (and subjecting themselves to a mandamus lawsuit). When personal liability is added to the mix, one could well imagine the balance tipping toward non-enforcement in close cases, all the while sacrificing the legislature's considered judgments about a statute's unconstitutionality. That is not a recipe for good government or for encouraging public officials to act independently.