In the past month, Libertarian U.S. Representative from Michigan, Justin Amash, has proposed a bill to Congress that would end qualified immunity for government officials. With everything going on in the United States over the past few months, discussions on civil rights have dominated the public square. This proposal is no exception. In order to make an informed decision about whether or not you support this bill, it’s important to know what is qualified immunity? That’s what we’re covering in today’s blog.
What is Qualified Immunity?
First, what is qualified immunity? Where did it come from? What is its purpose? In order to answer these questions, we’ll contrast it with absolute immunity.
- Absolute Immunity – government officials, when serving on the job, cannot be criminally prosecuted or sued for damages.
- Qualified Immunity – government officials, when serving on the job, cannot be criminally prosecuted or sued for damages, unless they have violated certain laws or broke the law in a pre-meditated way.
While absolute immunity has been around for a long time, qualified immunity has only been around since 1967. The idea behind these concepts is the realization that the legal process takes a lot of time and energy. So, both of these legal concepts exist to help government officials carry out the tasks in their jobs quickly and efficiently without worrying about legal entanglements.
For example, if you are a witness testifying in court, you have absolute immunity. You cannot face prosecution because of your testimony. If you testify against someone who turns out to be innocent, they cannot sue you because of your testimony (so long as it remained truthful).
What Does Qualified Immunity Mean for You?
Second, now that we know what is qualified immunity, what relevance does it have? As you can tell above, the definition of qualified immunity seems a bit unclear. When does this apply? What do we mean by “certain laws”? This remains one of the criticisms of qualified immunity: the circumstances of when it applies are unclear. Therefore, critics allege that the concept gets used to protect officials who deserve to face prosecution. To put it simply, they argue it helps protect bad people in government and tarnishes the reputation of the good people in government. For example, a government official might act more recklessly or negligently on the job because of their immunity than they would have if the concept didn’t exist.
So, do you support qualified immunity? Do you want to get rid of it? Or do you think some simple, clear changes need to be made? Whatever side you fall on, it’s important to stay informed. Read more about qualified immunity here and here.