Appellate Circuit

Chief Judge Priscilla Owen’s Panel Reversed by Supreme Court in Qualified Immunity Case. LIT’s Judicial Profiling is Vindicated, Again.

The Fifth Circuit is reversed [for showing no emotion nor humanity and] for incorrectly applying qualified immunity when clearly that protection was not available in the given circumstances.


The Fifth Circuit is reversed [for showing no emotion nor humanity and] for incorrectly applying qualified immunity when clearly that protection was not available in the given circumstances. The outrage by the population in the Taylor v. Riojas opinion by the 5th Circuit mirrors how the Burkes feel.

In their case, they have been ‘warned’ by the Chief Judge Priscilla Owen for filing a judicial complaint wherein the elderly citizens had been subject to abhorrent and outrageous claims by the opposing party, who would later admit to his lies. The court refused to act and the Chief’s letter to the Burkes is scandalous. It was no surprise to find out that she was a member of the 3-panel in this reversed case.

What is also of great concern is the fact Judge Priscilla Owen released this threatening letter, stating that the Burkes’ filing of future complaints would be subject to court approval – and which is unconstitutional – 8 days after the Supreme Court reversed this case. Again, she believes that her acts are protected by Judicial immunity and she can act with impunity. Alas, LIT begs to differ.

Court rules for inmate in qualified immunity case

Amy Howe, SCOTUSblog

In their orders on Monday, 2nd Nov., 2020, the justices struck down a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that had blocked a Texas inmate’s lawsuit against prison officials.

The inmate, Trent Taylor, was forced to spend six days naked in cells that contained feces from previous occupants and overflowing sewage. Taylor alleged that prison officials’ conduct violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but the 5th Circuit, invoking a doctrine known as qualified immunity, ruled that the officials could not be sued because it was not “clearly established” that their conduct violated Taylor’s constitutional rights.

Taylor went to the Supreme Court in April, asking the justices to clarify what it means for a constitutional violation to be clearly established.

In a brief unsigned opinion on Monday, the Supreme Court invalidated the 5th Circuit’s decision, without calling for briefing on the merits or oral argument.

The justices acknowledged that qualified immunity protects an official who makes a decision that, “even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.” But in this case, the justices emphasized, “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”

The court of appeals, the court noted, did not identify any emergency or other need for the prison officials to hold Taylor in these conditions, and the record in the case suggests that at least some of the officials were well aware of – but ignored – the conditions in the cells: One officer, putting him in a cell that was covered with feces, said to another officer that Taylor would “have a long weekend,” while a second officer, putting Taylor in a “frigidly cold” cell, expressed hope that Taylor would “f***ing freeze.”

The justices sent the case back to the lower court to allow Taylor’s lawsuit to move forward.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s decision, although he did not file a separate opinion to explain his vote.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the court’s decision. A Supreme Court spokeswoman indicated that Barrett did not participate in the justices’ private conference last week to give her more time to prepare for oral arguments.

Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate opinion in which he agreed with the court’s disposition of the case but indicated that he found it “hard to understand” why the justices had decided to intervene in Taylor’s case.

What Monday’s decision boils down to, Alito contended, is that the Supreme Court “simply disagrees with the Fifth Circuit’s application” of the proper legal test “to the facts of a particular record” – which is not the kind of dispute that the justices normally review.

Having said that, Alito agreed that the 5th Circuit should not have ruled that the prison officials are entitled to immunity from Taylor’s lawsuit.

Reading Taylor’s complaint, Alito acknowledged, “a reasonable fact-finder could infer not just that the conditions in the cells in question were horrific but that respondents chose to place and keep him in those particular cells, made no effort to have the cells cleaned, and did not explore the possibility of assignment to cells with better conditions.”

Clarence Thomas Dissented in Horrendous Qualified Immunity Case, But Probably Not for the Reasons People Think

Originally Published: Nov. 2, 2020 | Republished by LIT; Nov. 28, 2020

I will admit, my outrage-o-meter was all fired up this morning when I read that Clarence Thomas dissented in a case about whether to extend qualified immunity to a bunch of corrections officers who forced an inmate to sleep in abject filth for a week. Seven members of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trent Michael Taylor on Monday; Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate. Harsh words quickly rolled in for Thomas, the lone dissenter.

The case at issue is Trent Michael Taylor v. Robert Riojas, and the facts are not for the weak of stomach. Taylor, an inmate, was stripped naked and forced to stay in a cell covered in feces. He was forced to sleep on the floor, and could neither eat nor drink because feces had been packed inside the water faucet. After a few days in those horrific conditions, Taylor was moved into a “seclusion cell” without a toilet, water fountain, or bed. Eventually, raw sewage overflowed from a drain in the room, spilling across the floor, and Taylor was forced sleep, naked, in the filth.

Taylor sued prison officials for violation of his Eight Amendment rights – and they did not dispute his allegations. They did, however, argue that they were entitled to qualified immunity from legal liability. As so goes the court-created doctrine, because no case has ever “clearly established” that the specific conduct of these guards amounted to a violation of 8A, the guards had no “fair warning” that their conduct had been unconstitutional. This lack of warning, under precedent, shields them from liability.

Truly, the defendants’ logic is appalling to even contemplate; that the Fifth Circuit agreed is nothing short of horrifying. A panel of that court, made up of Judges Edith Jones and Jerry E. Smith (both Ronald Reagan-appointees) and Chief Judge Priscilla Owen (a George W. Bush-appointee) agreed to shield the officers from liability on grounds that they were entitled to qualified immunity.


Judge Edith Hollan Jones

was born April 7, 1949 (Aries)

Age: 71


Judge Priscilla Richman Owen

was born October 4, 1954 (Libra)

Age: 65


Judge Jerry Edwin Smith

was born November 7, 1946 (Scorpio)

Age: 73

The court even said that there could be “any number of perfectly valid reasons for” forcing inmates to sleep naked on the floor. While the court called Taylor’s claim “extraordinary,” it also ruled that his six-day stint in squalid conditions wasn’t long enough to constitute a clear constitutional violation.

“Though the law was clear that prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste for months on end, we hadn’t previously held that a time period so short violated the Constitution. That dooms Taylor’s claim,” wrote the court.

The Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit on appeal, calling out the Fifth Circuit for improper application of the qualified immunity doctrine.

“No reasonable correctional officer,” ruled SCOTUS, “could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”

SCOTUS’ takedown of the Fifth Circuit was a welcome check on unfettered 8A violations.

Clarence Thomas, though, dissented.

I think it’s fair to say that most people would agree that it doesn’t take volumes of legal precedent for a prison guard to know that Taylor’s conditions were out-of-bounds. The case hardly presented a complex question of prison administration – and the prison staff should be worried about more than civil lawsuits for their cruelty.

So did Justice Thomas really think the guards acted appropriately? Did he really think they shouldn’t answer for their actions? Although I have, very, very often, disagreed with Clarence Thomas, my guess here is no.

Thomas dissented without comment, but there’s reason to believe that his dissent is actually a vote for the rights of someone mistreated at the hands of law enforcement.

Clarence Thomas, you see, has already gone on record as being skeptical about the entire doctrine of qualified immunity.

The Supreme Court, in June of 2020, denied certiorari in the case of Alexander L. Baxter v. Brad Bracey.

The case asked whether a police officer deserved qualified immunity after he allegedly set an attack dog on a man who had already surrendered.

Thomas dissented from the denial of certiorari, saying that he would have heard the case because he has “strong doubts about our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine.”

In his dissent, Thomas explained that 42 U. S. C. §1983 (the statute that provides for civil rights lawsuits against local law enforcement) had been Congress’ response to “the reign of terror imposed by the Klan upon black citizens and their white sympathizers in the Southern States.”

Neither the text of §1983, nor the first century of its history raises immunity as a defense.

Then, over time, as various cases raised the defense of officials having acted in good faith, courts developed what became the doctrine of qualified immunity.

As Thomas pointed out in the case, though, as the doctrine developed “officials were not always immune from liability for their good-faith conduct.”

For Thomas, the goal is to ensure that §1983 is applied now just as it had been at common law. Some review, he suggested, is in order.

“Regardless of what the outcome would be,” he wrote, “we at least ought to return to the approach of asking” whether immunity “was ‘historically accorded the relevant official’ in an analogous situation ‘at common law.’”

Given that the Court has already looked to the past for guidance in cases dealing with absolute immunity, the same should be done for qualified immunity cases.

That’s not all, either. In a footnote, Thomas also suggested that another part of §1983 might warrant a review as well.

That part – the requirement that a defendant officer must have been acting “under color of law” to be liable – is separate from qualified immunity.

Thomas concedes, “Although concern about revisiting one doctrine but not the other is understandable.”

That case hadn’t been the first time Thomas spoke up about his skepticism regarding qualified immunity.

In 2017, Thomas concurred in Ziglar v. Abbasi. The justice explained that he wrote separately “to note my growing concern with our qualified immunity jurisprudence.”

The case dealt with claims by unlawfully-present aliens arrested in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks for damages suffered while in confinement.

Thomas was critical of the majority’s reliance on the qualified immunity doctrine:

“Instead of asking whether the common law in 1871 would have accorded immunity to an officer for a tort analogous to the plaintiff ’s claim under §1983, we instead grant immunity to any officer whose conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Calling the Court’s qualified immunity precedents “free-wheeling policy choice[s]” that the Court “previously disclaimed the power to make,” Thomas advocated that SCOTUS “shift the focus of our inquiry to whether immunity existed at common law,” and “reconsider our qualified immunity jurisprudence.”

Of course, none of this means that Justice Thomas has revealed his opinion as to whether the prison guards in Trent Michael Taylor’s case should be held liable; such is clearly outside the scope of the Supreme Court’s review.

Of course, given that Justice Thomas noted his dissent, one might wonder why he did not at least opt to clarify his view as to the facts. Without such clarification, there’s quite a bit of room for speculation as to whether Thomas’s discontent had any relationship with the obvious injustice that the Fifth Circuit’s application of qualified immunity appeared to have on Taylor as an individual.

Chief Judge Priscilla Owen’s Panel Reversed by Supreme Court in Qualified Immunity Case. LIT’s Judicial Profiling is Vindicated, Again.
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