The Bivens “Special Factors” and Qualified Immunity: Duplicative Barriers to the Vindication of Constitutional Rights

The Bivens “Special Factors” and Qualified Immunity: Duplicative Barriers to the Vindication of Constitutional Rights

Amelia G. Collins

Read Comment Here (PDF)

 

Introduction

When courts imply a cause of action under a Bivens analysis and when they apply an immunity as a defense, they are acting in their capacity as common-law courts.[1] However, each of those mechanisms developed differently, and the Supreme Court of the United States has been hesitant to utilize one—Bivens causes of action—while generously applying the other—qualified immunity. The purposes behind each device were originally antithetical, with Bivens aiming to deter unconstitutional conduct and qualified immunity seeking to ensure courts did not deter too much. However, the Supreme Court gradually restricted its Bivens jurisprudence, from granting a cause of action unless there are “special factors,” to denying a cause of action whenever there are “sound reasons.”[2] As a result, the practical outcomes of both analyses are the same: plaintiffs cannot fully vindicate their constitutional rights and often cannot vindicate them at all. This Comment argues that, to ensure the vitality of the foundational presumption that for every legal right, there is a remedy,[3] the Supreme Court should restore its Bivens analysis to the original framework, invoking only those “special factors” recognized in the Court’s initial extensions of a cause of action to plaintiffs bringing constitutional claims.

That would mean abandoning the catch-all “sound reasons” espoused in Ziglar v. Abbasi[4] and followed in the Court’s most recent Bivens decision, Hernández v. Mesa.[5] It would mean considering only whether the issue is purely a matter of policy—that is, one that does not implicate a constitutional right—or whether the issue raises extraordinary separation-of-powers concerns. A restoration of the original Bivens framework would ensure that federal actors can be held accountable when they violate the Constitution. The court-created doctrine of qualified immunity would remain a defense, but, at the very least, the courts would reprise their proper role in the protection of constitutional rights.

Part I of this note traces the history of the Bivens cause of action and analyzes the original “special factors” that concerned the Supreme Court. Part I also outlines the purpose behind implying a Bivens cause of action for plaintiffs bringing constitutional claims. Part II includes the same analysis of the qualified immunity defense, both to its history and purpose. Part III demonstrates how the Supreme Court has incorporated the concerns addressed by qualified immunity into the “special factors” analysis, rather than acknowledging the mitigating nature of immunity defenses when examining if any “special factors” exist. Finally, Part IV argues for the restoration of the original, more limited “special factors” jurisprudence—and an abandonment of the incorporation of qualified immunity concerns—to facilitate the vindication of constitutional rights.

 


    

    [1].    See Richard H. Jr. Fallon, Bidding Farewell to Constitutional Torts, 107 Calif. L. Rev. 933, 949 (2019) (“Absent statutory authorization, a right to sue for redress of a constitutional violation is a species of common law, crafted by the courts to implement the Constitution in the absence of a necessary one-to-one correlation between a constitutional right and a particular remedy for the right’s violation. Bivens’ innovations were to ground a cause of action in federal rather than state common law and to put alleged constitutional violations at the core of the right to sue.”).

        [2].    Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1858 (2017); Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 396 (1971).

        [3].    Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 162–63 (1803).

        [4].    Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843, 1858 (2017).

        [5].    Hernández v. Mesa, 140 S. Ct. 735, 743 (2020).

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