(Washington, D.C.) – Arthur Ago, Director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law testified before Congress today about how the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity erodes civil rights protections for people of color. The testimony, before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties was part of a hearing entitled “Examining Civil Rights Litigation Reform, Part 1: Qualified Immunity”. Video of the hearing is available here.
In his testimony, Ago made clear that Congress must abolish the doctrine of qualified immunity if victims of police misconduct are to have a meaningful opportunity to pursue justice under the law—particularly Black people and other people of color, who disproportionately bear the brunt of this misconduct. His testimony revealed that Black people killed by police are more than twice as likely to be unarmed as white people and police use force in their interactions with Black people 3.6 times more often than with white people. Ago told the Subcommittee that civil liability is necessary because other avenues of accountability are insufficient.
When asked by Subcommittee Chair Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) how supporters of strict construction of the Constitution can support qualified immunity, Ago explained that the defense of qualified immunity has no basis in the Constitution or federal laws. It is simply a judge-made doctrine that Congress could eliminate if it so chooses. Currently, qualified immunity undermines community safety and the legitimacy of law enforcement by protecting many police officers from almost any accountability whatsoever.
Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) asked Ago to articulate why achieving true justice demands that we reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity. Ago explained that eliminating qualified immunity would start to bring accountability for those situations where police violate civil rights, predominantly borne by communities of color.”
Ago also explained that police unions’ purported concerns about runaway liability and individual offers having to make huge payouts out of their own pockets is baseless. Individual officers are almost always indemnified by government employers, and have paid only two hundredths of a percent of the total awards to plaintiffs. In his testimony, Ago quoted Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, who stated that qualified immunity “sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
Arthur Ago’s full testimony can be found here.
About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes. For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org.