Supreme Court makes it easier to sue government officials

Tuesday, May 5, 1998

It is rare for the Supreme Court to make it easier for plaintiffs to prevail in lawsuits claiming that government officials violated their free-speech or other constitutional rights.

But that is what the justices did on Monday, in a 5-4 decision that was hailed by civil-liberties advocates as maintaining access to the courts for people who often feel left out of the judicial process. The ruling came in the case of Crawford-El v. Britton.

“This keeps the courthouse doors open to those who claim that government officials acted maliciously to violate their rights,” said Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Those doors were held open grudgingly by a court that spoke of the “strong public interest” in protecting government officials from frivolous or frequent litigation.

But the majority nonetheless said there is no justification in the law “for the imposition of special burdens on plaintiffs who allege misconduct that was plainly unlawful when it occurred.” It would be up to Congress, not the Supreme Court, to protect officials from lawsuits by establishing such burdens, according to the opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens.

The ruling allows Leonard Crawford-El, convicted of murder in Washington, D.C., to proceed with a lawsuit against the D.C. corrections department.

Crawford-El, an outspoken critic of prison conditions, claims prison officials retaliated against him for his views by mistreating him. He said by punishing him for exercising his First Amendment rights, the government officials violated his constitutional rights. He sued under Section 1983, a law that allows people to sue for constitutional-rights violations anyone who acts under color of state law.

But a federal appeals court, acting to free government officials from the burden of defending against such suits, ruled last year that plaintiffs would have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the government official acted with “unconstitutional motive.” Without such evidence, the suits could be dismissed. Formerly, that showing could be made by a preponderance of the evidence.

Such a high standard, some legal experts say, would make it almost impossible for plaintiffs to prevail against government officials.

And that goes too far, the Supreme Court ruled. Judges have adequate tools already to dismiss frivolous suits, the court noted, and any further changes should come from Congress, the majority said.

Joining Stevens in the majority were Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Kennedy wrote separately to say that while Section 1983 litigation “can illustrate our legal order at its best and its worst,” it is up to Congress, not the courts, to come up with “[f]ar-reaching solutions.”

The ACLU’s Spitzer said the ruling would be useful in a range of cases, including those brought by government employees who claim they were maliciously fired or disciplined by superiors for exercising free-speech rights.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Sandra Day O’Connor, dissented, arguing that the higher burden would have little impact on legitimate suits. For example, he said suits based on core First Amendment violations do not depend on motives, so the new standard would have no impact.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Clarence Thomas, wrote a separate dissent to urge an even higher standard to prevent the tens of thousands of Section 1983 lawsuits, which he said “engage this court in a losing struggle to prevent the Constitution from degenerating into a general tort law.” Under Scalia’s standard, if defendants could show that a government official’s grounds for the official action were “objectively valid,” the suit could not go forward.