Supreme Court decision paves way for big change to Sovereign Immunity law
In the month of December, the United States Supreme Court issued an important unanimous decision that could lay the groundwork for a significant change to sovereign immunity law in the United States. The case, captioned Tanzin v. Tanvir, held that monetary damages against government workers who violate constitutional rights are not only appropriate – but that “this exact remedy has coexisted with our constitutional system since the dawn of the Republic.”
Background of Tanzin v. Tanvir
The case arose when a group of muslim men – citing sincerely held religious beliefs – refused to cooperate with the FBI when asked to spy on other members of their community. In retaliation for the group of men failing to cooperate, the FBI placed the men on a “Do Not Fly” list – which prevented their ability to travel for any reason. This led the men to be estranged from their families and even lose jobs. For example, Muhammed Tanvir was an over the road trucker, which often required him to fly home after long trips. Since he was placed on the “Do Not Fly” list – he was unable to continue in this employ.
As a result, the Plaintiffs brought suit against the FBI Agents. In this lawsuit, the group of men asked for damages for the violations of their religious rights. This claim was based in the 1993 statute known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or “RFRA” for short). This law provides an American citizen whose religious rights are violated by government actors to “obtain any appropriate relief against a government.” The broad phrasing of this statement has often led to litigation about just what relief is “appropriate” in a given fact pattern.
In this case, the United States argued that “appropriate relief” does not include monetary damages. This is a unique argument in civil rights cases – as money damages are frequently the subject of lawsuits between regular people. In so arguing, the United States was asserting that government employees should be treated differently than regular citizens – leaning heavily on policy arguments that law suits against government actors should be generally disfavored and that the status as a government employee should confer near limitless protections to their legal exposure.
The Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion – penned by Justice Thomas – that disagreed with the United States expansive view of sovereign immunity. In doing so, the Court began to erode one of the primary and more frequently cited justifications for a wide ranging application of Sovereign Immunity.
A brief history of the Sovereign Immunity doctrine is helpful to understand why this decision is so powerful. In 1982, in the wake of the Nixon administration, the Supreme Court created the concept of Sovereign Immunity in an effort to shield former Nixon aides from constitutional lawsuits. In doing so, the Court reasoned that protecting government workers from lawsuits would ensure that people take government jobs, and remain focused on those jobs without fear of consequence. Sovereign Immunity has been repeatedly used to limit or deny victims of constitutional abuses from obtaining justice – but for the most egregious examples. This is how the law stood for over 3 decades, until this month.
In this historic decision, the Supreme Court opined that not only were monetary damages an appropriate and traditional remedy for constitutional violations – but also rejected the historical policy arguments underpinning the sovereign immunity doctrine. Despite pleas from the Government to rule contrary, the Court reasoned that while there:
“may be policy reasons why Congress may wish to shield Government employees from personal liability … there are no Constitutional reasons why we must do so in its stead … Our task is simply to interpret the law as an ordinary person would.”
This important decision has impacts well beyond this particular claim. For example, the Court specifically reference and reiterated the availability of monetary damages for violations of the right to Free Speech. In a forceful and clear recitation of precedent, the Opinion reads:
“There is no doubt that damages claims have always been available under §1983 for clearly established violations of the First Amendment. See, e.g., Sause v. Bauer, (per curiam) (reversing grant of qualified immunity in a case seeking damages under §1983 based on alleged violations of free exercise rights and Fourth Amendment rights); Murphy v. Missouri Dept. of Corrections, 814 F. 2d 1252, 1259 (CA8 1987) (remanding to enter judgment for plaintiffs on a §1983 free speech and free exercise claims and to determine and order “appropriate relief, which . . . may, if appropriate, include an award” of damages).”
Learn More About This Case
- USA Today – The Supreme Court might be finding its way to overturning ‘qualified immunity’
- JD Supra – Supreme Court decides Tanzin v. Tanvir
- Reason – SCOTUS Rules That Federal Agents Can Be Sued When They Violate Your Rights
- Wall Street Journal – Religious Freedom and the FBI
- Washington Examiner – In Tanzin, Supreme Court shows how the rule of law upholds religious liberty
Dennis P. Sawan
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Christopher A. Sawan
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