Saturday, September 22, 2007

Terminological inexactitude and qualified immunity

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Judge Shedd in the case of Henry v. Purnell decided to hold forth on a number of the oddities of the law of qualified immunity, in the Fourth Circuit.

The Supreme Court requires the two-parts of the qualified immunity to be addressed in a particular sequence, for reasons that are not entirely satisfactory. The initial inquiry is whether the plaintiff has stated or proven sufficient facts to show a constitutional violation - in other words, does the plaintiff have a case on the merits? If the trial court decides this first inquiry against the plaintiff, is it a decision based on qualified immunity, or not? And, does it matter?

Judge Shedd notes:

"When resolving cases on the first Saucier question, courts sometimes state that the absence of a constitutional violation entitles the defendant to qualified immunity. At least one circuit court has specifically rejected this approach, noting that a defendant in that instance prevails not because of qualified immunity but, instead, because the plaintiff "did not prove an essential element of the § 1983 claim." Ambrose v. Young, 474 F.3d 1070, 1077 n.3 (8th Cir. 2007). In several recent opinions, the Supreme Court appears to have segregated the initial Saucier inquiry of whether a constitutional violation occurred from the second inquiry of whether the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. See, e.g., Morse v. Frederick, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S. Ct. 2618, 2624 & n.1 (2007) (expressly declining to decide the case on qualified immunity grounds based on the conclusion that no constitutional violation occurred); Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 563 (2004) ("Having concluded that a constitutional violation occurred, we turn to the question whether petitioner is entitled to qualified immunity despite that violation."); Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (expressing "no view as to the correctness of the Court of Appeals’ decision on the constitutional question" because, in any event, "the Court of Appeals was wrong on the issue of qualified immunity"); see also id. at 601 (Breyer, J., concurring) (noting that Saucier "requires lower courts to decide (1) the constitutional question prior to deciding (2) the qualified immunity question")."

Of course, the characterization makes some practical difference when the defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied, because an ordinary denial of summary judgment on the merits is not immediately appealable, but denial of a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is immediately appealable.

The second point is how does the burden of proof apply to a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. This opinion, for the first time that I can recall, undertakes a thorough survey of the language from the Fourth Circuit precedents on this point, which are contradictory and inconsistent with the explanations from some other circuits. Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, that the defendant must raise, but the burden of proving the claim on the merits is always on the plaintiff.

Judge Shedd explained:

"The plaintiff bears the burden of proof on the first question — i.e., whether a constitutional violation occurred."

He goes on to say:

"The defendant bears the burden of proof on the second question — i.e., entitlement to qualified immunity."

In making this statement, the judge noted that other circuits and some of the Fourth Circuits take the opposite view. I'm not sure that even makes sense to say the defendant has the burden of proof on what is essentially a legal question - was the constitutional right violated by the defendant clearly established?

The Green and the Gold

A while back I read this item which says, among other things, that the faculty of the College of William & Mary have given their green and gold to federal candidates for '08 (as of July 30, 2007) at a ratio of 99% to Democrats and 1% to Republicans.

The Flat Hat says a Facebook survey shows that liberals outnumber conservatives among the William & Mary students on Facebook, 2.84 to 1.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Some links

The Judicial Conference says - transcripts will soon be available online, through PACER at eight cents per page.

Once again, the NY Times says, it will quit charging for much of its content.

Here in this Megan McArdle post is debated the question, "How conservative is the Supreme Court? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?"

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On the late Judge Widener of the Fourth Circuit

The Bristol paper reports here that Senior Judge H. Emory Widener, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, died at his home here in Abingdon yesterday, at the age of 83.

My wife saw the article and asked me if this was the fellow with the hat who ate lunch at the Empire. Indeed, that's the one, the same man my dad knew from the Math Olympics, and who is the subject of posts here, here, and here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Today's links

The Roanoke paper reports here on a Southwest Virginia farmer who filed suit over the use of his picture on a card that asks, would you rather be spanked or goosed? The case was filed in Roanoke County Circuit Court.

Here is a profile of a stout U.Va. man, who died at age 24 from muscular dystrophy.

Here from Time magazine and here from USAToday are items on the new Jeffrey Toobin book about the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The field goal call that got reversed

Nobody has anything good to say about this bit of refereeing.

On Roanoke's Judge Coulter

The Roanoke paper had this story on the life and times of the late Circuit Court Judge Jack Coulter.

The article says in part:

"Coulter was twice nominated for seats on the Virginia Supreme Court, the second coming down to the flip of a coin. In 1987, Roanoke-area legislators flipped a coin to break a deadlock over whether to back Coulter or Chief Appeals Court Judge Lawrence Koontz for the state Supreme Court.

That seat eventually went to the Winchester Circuit Court Judge Henry Whiting. Koontz succeeded Whiting in 1995."

Monday, September 17, 2007

From the folks who brought us Ward Churchill

The Tallahassee paper reports:

"A 'Southern-type thing'

Billy Smith has been providing Florida State head coaches with on-field security since 1964. The sight of the retired Florida Highway patrolman on the sideline in uniform with a gun in his holster is just a part of Florida State football.

That practice, however, isn't to the liking of the University of Colorado, which according to Smith told him he couldn't be in uniform and could not have a gun. Smith said that was before FSU President T.K. Wetherell stepped in, talked to his Colorado counterpart and reached an agreement for Smith to be there on Saturday night.

“They allow their highway patrol, sheriff's office, police department and campus police but not the visiting trooper,” Smith said. “One of their people told me, 'Oh, you do the Southern-type thing.' ”

It's the first time Smith encountered the problem."

On last week's Virginia Supreme Court rulings

Friday was decision day in the Virginia Supreme Court, the first of the fall. Here is the synopsis page. The VLW Blog has several posts on the decisions.

Here from the Norfolk paper, here from The Hook, here from the Richmond paper, and here from the Roanoke paper are stories about the decision in the Highland County wind farm case. The opinion is Miller v. Highland County, by Justice Keenan. It decides procedural issues related to the zoning.

Here from the Washington Post and here from the AP are stories on the tree injunction case, modernizing the tree law of the Commonwealth. The opinion is Fancher v. Fagella, by Senior Justice Russell. In this opinion, the Court replaced one judge-made rule with another, with unknown effects on property rights throughout the Commonwealth, in the interests of modernity and urbanization.

What's interesting is the Court almost adopted the Blackwelder test for injunctive relief, see Blackwelder Furn. Co. v. Seilig Mfg. Co., Inc., 550 F.2d 189 (4th Cir. 1977). The Court says, by way of advisory opinion: "The decision whether to grant an injunction always rests in the sound discretion of the chancellor, and depends on the relative benefit an injunction would confer upon the plaintiff in contrast to the injury it would impose on the defendant. Any burden imposed on the public should also be weighed. Akers v. Mathieson Alkali Works, 151 Va. 1, 8-9, 144 S.E. 492, 494 (1928)." Maybe Blackwelder adopts the Akers v. Mathieson Alkali test.

Here is a story from the Norfolk paper on the FOIA case decided against the Norfolk Airport Authority. The opinion is Fenter v. Norfolk Airport Authority, by Senior Justice Stephenson.

from the Leesburg paper is an article on the Supreme Court's decision reversing an order imposing a writ of mandamus against a town official, as part of a long-running dispute between Leesburg and a developer. The opinion is Umstattd v. Centex Homes, G.P., by Senior Justice Russell.

the Newport News paper reports on the Supreme Court's decision upholding a multi-million dollar verdict in an asbestos case. The opinion is John Crane, Inc. v. Jones, Admin'x.