Instant Analysis: Camretta v. Greene

May 26th, 2011

In Camreta v. Green, the Ninth Circuit found that two state officials violated the Fourth Amendment rights of an elementary school age girl, S.G., by interviewing her without a warrant. However, the Ninth Circuit held that the doctrine of qualified immunity shields the officer from monetary liability, because “the constitutional right at issue was not clearly established under existing law.” The officials sought Supreme Court review. There were two questions presented: whether (1) “government officials who prevail on grounds of qualified immunity obtain our review of a court of appeals’ decision that their conduct violated the Constitution” and (2) if the Court “can consider cases in this procedural posture, did the Ninth Circuit correctly determine that this interview breached the Fourth Amendment.”

Justice Kagan wrote for 7 members, and found that the Court could review the petition from the state officials, but the Fourth Amendment issue was moot. Justice Scalia concurred. Justice Sotomayor concurred in judgment. Justice Kennedy, joined by Justice Thomas dissented.

Justice Kagan’s Majority Opinion

Kagan found that the appeal from the victorious state officials was permissible, but the Fourth Amendment issue was moot, as the girl in question was almost 18, and had moved.

We conclude that this Court generally may review alower court’s constitutional ruling at the behest of a government official granted immunity. But we may not do soin this case for reasons peculiar to it. The case has become moot because the child has grown up and moved acrossthe country, and so will never again be subject to the Oregon in-school interviewing practices whose constitutionality is at issue. We therefore do not reach the Fourth Amendment question in this case. In line with our normal practice when mootness frustrates a party’s right to appeal, see United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., 340 U. S. 36, 39 (1950), we vacate the part of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion that decided the Fourth Amendment issue.

Justice Kagan opines on the Court’s certiorari statute, and refers to the Court’s ability to hear the case as an “unqualified power.”

The statute governing this Court’s jurisdiction authorizes us to adjudicate a case in this posture, and S. G. doesnot contend otherwise. The relevant provision confersunqualified power on this Court to grant certiorari “upon the petition of any party.” 28 U. S. C. §1254(1) (emphasis added). That language covers petitions brought by litigants who have prevailed, as well as those who have lost, in the court below.

Justice Kagan finds that there are no Article III, or prudential reasons why the Court cannot hear this case.

S. G., however, alleges two impediments to our exercise of statutory authority here, one constitutional and the other prudential. First, she claims that Article III bars review because petitions submitted by immunized officials present no case or controversy. See Brief for Respondent 31–39. Second, she argues that our settled practice of declining to hear appeals by prevailing parties shouldapply with full force when officials have obtained immunity. See id., at 24–27. We disagree on both counts.

Kagan provides a succinct recitation of Article III “cases” or “controversies” standing:

Article III of the Constitution grants this Court authority to adjudicate legal disputes only in the context of “Cases” or “Controversies.” To enforce this limitation, we demand that litigants demonstrate a “personal stake” in the suit. Summers v. Earth Island Institute, 555 U. S. 488, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 4) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also United States Parole Comm’n v. Geraghty, 445 U. S. 388, 395–397 (1980). The party invoking the Court’s authority has such a stake when three conditions are satisfied: The petitioner must show that he has “suffered an injury in fact” that is caused by “the conduct complained of” and that “will be redressed by a favorable decision.” Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U. S. 555, 560–561 (1992) (internal quotation marks omitted). And the opposing party also must have an ongoing interest in the dispute, so that the case features “that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues.” Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U. S. 95, 101 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). To ensure a case remains “fit for federal-court adjudication,” the parties must have thenecessary stake not only at the outset of litigation, but throughout its course. Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U. S. 43, 67 (1997).

In a snippy footnote, Justice Kagan notes that the precedents she cites to not totally support the holding, but for the proposition that “this Court has previously identified no special Article III bar on review of appeals brought by parties who obtained a judgment in their favor below.” Responding to Justice Kennedy’s dissent, she writes, “The dissent does not, because it cannot, dispute that simple point.”

Noting that the Court generally does not accept review from victorious parties, Kagan finds that special policy reasons sufficiently justify “bending the rules,” and granting Cert for a qualified immunity case.

We therefore have adhered with some rigor to the principle that “[t]his Court reviews judgments, not statements in opinions.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). On the few occasions when we have departed from that principle, we have pointed to a “policy reaso[n] . . . of sufficient importance to allow an appeal” by the winner below. Deposit Guaranty, 445 U. S., at 336, n. 7.
We think just such a reason places qualified immunity cases in a special category when it comes to this Court’s review of appeals brought by winners. 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. See supra, at 6–7. 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. We describe in more detail below these features of the qualified immunity world and why they came to be. We hold that taken together, they support bending our usual rule to permit consideration of immunized officials’ petitions.

Justice Kagan writes about the avoidance doctrine, which seems to be used except where its not used.

And indeed, our usual adjudicatory rules suggest that a court should forbear resolving this issue. After all, a “longstanding principle of judicial restraint requires that courts avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them.” Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn., 485 U. S. 439, 445 (1988); see also Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U. S. 288, 346–347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring). In this category of qualified immunity cases, a court can enter judgment withoutever ruling on the (perhaps difficult) constitutional claim the plaintiff has raised. Small wonder, then, that a court might leave that issue for another day.

In some cases, the failure of the Court to resolve the merits ossifies the development of precedents (echoing the argument made in Pearson v. Callahan).

Consider a plausible but unsettled constitutional claim asserted against a government official in a suit for money damages. The court does not resolve the claim because the official has immunity. He thus persists in the challenged practice; he knows that he can avoid liability in any future damages action, because the law has still not been clearly established. Another plaintiff brings suit, and another court both awards immunity and bypasses the claim. And again, and again, and again. So the moment of decision does not arrive.5 Courts fail to clarify uncertain questions, fail to address novel claims, fail to give guidance to officials about how to comply with legal requirements. Qualified immunity thus may frustrate “the development of constitutional precedent” and the promotion of law-abiding behavior.

Kagan stresses that this opinion does not represent a return to Saucier v. Katz, where lower courts were required to consider the constitutional question prior to considering qualified immunity.

In general, courts should think hard, and then think hard again, before turning small cases into large ones. But it remains true that following the two-step sequence—defining constitutional rights and only then conferring immunity—is sometimes beneficial to clarify the legal standards governing public officials. Id., at 236; see id., at 236–242 (discussing factors courts should consider in making this determination).

The Court places limitations on its opinion. First, the Court does not “decide if an appellate court, too, can entertain an appeal from a party who has prevailed on immunity grounds.” Second clarifies the discretionary nature of the writ of certiorari:

review; what we actually will choose to review is a different matter. That choice will be governed by the ordinary principles informing our decision whether to grant certiorari—a “power [we] . . . sparingly exercis[e].” Forsyth v. Hammond, 166 U. S. 506, 514 (1897); see also id., at 514–515 (this Court grants review “only when the circumstances of the case satisfy us that the importance of the question involved, the necessity of avoiding conflict [in the lower courts], or some matter affecting the interests of this nation . . . , demands such exercise”); this Court’s Rule 10. Our decision today doesno more than exempt one special category of cases from our usual rule against considering prevailing parties’ petitions. Going forward, we will consider these petitionsone by one in accord with our usual standards.

However, the case is moot.

After we granted certiorari, we discovered that S. G. has “moved toFlorida, and ha[s] no intention of relocating back to Oregon.” Brief for Respondent 13, n. 13. What is more, S. G. is now only months away from her 18th birthday—and, presumably, from her high school graduation. See id., at 31. 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. When “subsequent events ma[ke] it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur,” we have no live controversy to review.. . . Time and distance combined have stymied our ability to consider this petition.

Justice Kagan’s writing is so succinct, and enjoyable to read. I look forward to many more opinions from her.

Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion

All of one paragraph: 

I join the Court’s opinion, which reasonably applies our precedents, strange though they may be. The alternative solution, as JUSTICE KENNEDY suggests, see post, at 13 (dissenting opinion), 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.

Seems like we have at least 3 votes were this issue to come up again.

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion concurring in judgment

Sotomayor agrees with the decision that the case is moot, and that vacatur is appropriate, but would not question whether the case is properly before the Court.

There is no warrant for reaching this question when there is clearly no longer a genuine case or controversy between the parties before us. See Sinochem Int’l Co. v. Malaysia Int’l Shipping Corp., 549 U. S. 422, 436 (2007) (noting that when a court can “readily” dispose of a case on one threshold ground, it should not reach another one that “is difficult to determine”). Indeed, it is improper for us to do so.

Justice Kennedy’s Dissent

Kennedy’s dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, would decline to hear this case, finding that the Dictum from the 9th Circuit Case though not precedent, still has utility, and does not warrant what could be an advisory opinion.

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. So, while acknowledging the problem the Court confronts, my concern with the rule adopted for this case calls for this respectful dissent.

In an interesting passage, Kennedy lists all the means in which constitutional law can be determined outside the context of qualified immunity, listing a number of recent precedents including Snyder v. Phelps, McDonald v. Chicago, Citizens United v. F.E.C., and Lawrence v. Texas.

For example, qualified immunity does not bar Fourth and Fifth Amendment suppression challenges. See, e.g., Kentucky v. King, ante, p. ___. Nor does it prevent invocation of the Constitution as a defense against criminal prosecution, civil suit, or cruel and unusual punishment. See, e.g., Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U. S. ___ (2011); Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. ___ (2010); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558 (2003). Nor is qualified immunity available in constitutional suits against municipalities—as this very case illustrates. Ante, at 15–16. Our cases make clear, moreover, that “officials can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U. S. 730, 741 (2002). That rule permits clearly established violations to be found when extreme though unheard-of actions violate the Constitution. See, e.g., ibid. Furthermore, constitutional plaintiffs may seek declaratory or injunctive relief pursuant to standard principles of justiciability. Those plaintiffs do not need Pearson’s special rule. See, e.g., Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. ___ (2010); McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. ___ (2010). In any event, some incremental advance in the law occurs even when clearly established violations are found. It is an inevitable aspect of judicial decisionmaking that the resolution of one legal question or factual dispute casts light on the next.