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ArtII.S3.5.3 Qualified Immunity Doctrine

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2:

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

While the courts may be unable to compel the President to act or to prevent him from acting, his acts, when performed, are in proper cases subject to judicial review and disallowance. Typically, the subordinates through whom he acts may be sued, in a form of legal fiction, to enjoin the commission of acts which might lead to irreparable damage1 or to compel by writ of mandamus the performance of a duty definitely required by law.2 Such suits are usually brought in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.3 In suits under the common law, a subordinate executive officer may be held personally liable in damages for any act done in excess of authority,4 although immunity exists for anything, even malicious wrongdoing, done in the course of his duties.5

Different rules prevail when such an official is sued for a “constitutional tort” for wrongs allegedly in violation of our basic charter,6 although the Court has hinted that in some “sensitive” areas officials acting in the “outer perimeter” of their duties may be accorded an absolute immunity from liability.7 Jurisdiction to reach such officers for acts for which they can be held responsible must be under the general “federal question” jurisdictional statute, which, as recently amended, requires no jurisdictional amount.8

E.g., Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) (suit to enjoin Secretary of Commerce to return steel mills seized on President’s order); Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U.S. 654 (1981) (suit against Secretary of Treasury to nullify presidential orders on Iranian assets). See also Noble v. Union River Logging R.R., 147 U.S. 165 (1893); Phila. Co. v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605 (1912). back
E.g., Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803) (suit against Secretary of State to compel delivery of commissions of office); Kendall v. United States ex rel. Stokes, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 524 (1838) (suit against Postmaster General to compel payment of money owed under act of Congress); Decatur v. Paulding, 39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 497 (1840) (suit to compel Secretary of Navy to pay a pension). back
This was originally on the theory that the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia had inherited, via the common law of Maryland, the jurisdiction of the King’s Bench “over inferior jurisdictions and officers.” Kendall v. United States ex rel. Stokes, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 524, 614, 620–21 (1838). Congress has now authorized federal district courts outside the District of Columbia also to entertain such suits. Act of Oct 5, 1962, Pub. L. No. 87-748, 76 Stat. 744 (codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1361). back
E.g., Little v. Barreme, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 170 (1804); Bates v. Clark, 95 U.S. 204 (1877); United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196 (1882); Virginia Coupon Cases (Poindexter v. Greenhow), 114 U.S. 270 (1885); Belknap v. Schild, 161 U.S. 10 (1896). back
Spalding v. Vilas, 161 U.S. 483 (1896); Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564 (1959). See Westfall v. Erwin, 484 U.S. 292 (1988) (action must be discretionary in nature as well as being within the scope of employment, before federal official is entitled to absolute immunity). Following the Westfall decision, Congress enacted the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988 (the Westfall Act), which authorized the Attorney General to certify that an employee was acting within the scope of his office or employment at the time of the incident out of which a suit arose; upon certification, the employee is dismissed from the action, and the United States is substituted, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) then governing the action, which means that sometimes the action must be dismissed against the government because the FTCA has not waived sovereign immunity. United States v. Smith, 499 U.S. 160 (1991) (Westfall Act bars suit against federal employee even when an exception in the FTCA bars suit against the government). Cognizant of the temptation of the government to immunize both itself and its employee, the Court in Gutierrez de Martinez v. Lamagno, 515 U.S. 417 (1995), held that the Attorney General’s certification is subject to judicial review. back
An implied cause of action against officers accused of constitutional violations was recognized in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). In Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), a Bivens action, the Court distinguished between common-law torts and constitutional torts and denied high federal officials, including cabinet secretaries, absolute immunity, in favor of the qualified immunity previously accorded high state officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), the Court denied presidential aides derivative absolute presidential immunity, but it modified the rules of qualified immunity, making it more difficult to hold such aides, other federal officials, and indeed state and local officials, liable for constitutional torts. In Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985), the Court extended qualified immunity to the Attorney General for authorizing a warrantless wiretap in a case involving domestic national security. Although the Court later held such warrantless wiretaps violated the Fourth Amendment, at the time of the Attorney General’s authorization this interpretation was not “clearly established,” and the Harlow immunity protected officials exercising discretion on such open questions. See also Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987) (in an exceedingly opaque opinion, the Court extended similar qualified immunity to FBI agents who conducted a warrantless search). back
Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 812 (1982). back
See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. On deleting the jurisdictional amount, see Pub. L. No. 94-574, 90 Stat. 2721 (1976), and Pub. L. No. 96-486, 94 Stat. 2369 (1980). If such suits are brought in state courts, they can be removed to federal district courts. 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a). back