Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Qualified Immunity and Gun Cases

The Supreme Court refuses to hear thousands of cases a year. So, the denial of a petition, or even multiple petitions on the same issue, is rarely noteworthy. On Monday the Supreme Court denied nine petitions involving qualified immunity and 10 petitions involving guns. Had the Court accepted any of these petitions the case would have had significant implications for states and local governments.

The doctrine of qualified immunity protects state and local officials from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right. In the 1960s the Supreme Court recognized qualified immunity as a defense to constitutional violations. 

If qualified immunity applies, then money damages aren’t available even if a constitutional violation has occurred. If qualified immunity doesn’t apply, then, while the government employee or official technically is responsible for money damages, the government entity virtually always pays. So, qualified immunity protects states and local governments from having to pay money damages for actions not yet deemed unconstitutional by a court. 

In the last few years, qualified immunity has been criticized by academics, thinktanks, and judges. Since George Floyd’s death, qualified immunity has faced increasing scrutiny. In a number of the qualified immunity petitions a party and/or amicus filing a brief in support of a petition asked the Court to modify or overrule qualified immunity. When the Court kept allowing more and more petitions to pile up, speculation grew that the Court would take a number of petitions at once and somehow alter if not eliminate the doctrine.

On Monday the Supreme Court denied certiorari in all of the petitions. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in one of the cases. Justice Thomas reiterated his “doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence,” noting qualified immunity is not included in the text of the statute which allows state and local government officials to be sued for violating the constitution.

The petitions in the gun cases raised a variety of legal issues. The issue the Supreme Court seemed most likely to consider was whether states and local governments may prevent people from carrying a firearm outside the home. In 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment “guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation” within the home.

In a two-page opinion issued in April in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, the Supreme Court held that a challenge to New York City’s rule disallowing residents to transport firearms to a second home or shooting range outside of the city is moot.

The Supreme Court concluded the case was moot because after the Court agreed to hear it “the State of New York amended its firearm licensing statute, and the City amended the rule so that [residents] may now transport firearms to a second home or shooting range outside of the city, which is the precise relief . . . requested.”

Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh dissented from the Court’s denial of Rogers v. Grewal upholding New Jersey law requiring private citizens to demonstrate a justifiable need to carry a handgun outside the home. Justice Thomas opined: “This Court would almost certainly review the constitutionality of a law requiring citizens to establish a justifiable need before exercising their free speech rights. And it seems highly unlikely that the Court would allow a State to enforce a law requiring a woman to provide a justifiable need before seeking an abortion. But today, faced with a petition challenging just such a restriction on citizens’ Second Amendment rights, the Court simply looks the other way.”