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Authors

William Baude

Abstract

The doctrine of qualified immunity operates as an unwritten defense to civil rights lawsuits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It prevents plaintiffs from recovering damages for violations of their constitutional rights unless a government official violated “clearly established law,” which usually requires specific precedent on point. This Article argues that the qualified immunity doctrine is unlawful and inconsistent with conventional principles of statutory interpretation.

The doctrine of qualified immunity operates as an unwritten defense to civil rights lawsuits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It prevents plaintiffs from recovering damages for violations of their constitutional rights unless a government official violated “clearly established law,” which usually requires specific precedent on point. This Article argues that the qualified immunity doctrine is unlawful and inconsistent with conventional principles of statutory interpretation.

On closer examination, each of these justifications falls apart for a mix of historical, conceptual, and doctrinal reasons. There was no such defense; there was no such mistake; lenity ought not apply. Furthermore, even if these things were otherwise, the doctrine of qualified immunity would not be the best response.

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Link to publisher version (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.15779/Z38MG7FV8G